Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Noted journalist arrested, then released

Prominent human rights defender and independent journalist Hossam Bahgat was released from custody two days after being arrested for publishing offenses. Amira Howeidy reports

Noted journalist arrested, then released
Noted journalist arrested, then released
Al-Ahram Weekly

Human rights activist-turned investigative reporter Hossam Bahgat, 37, received a written summons at his parents’ home in Alexandria last Thursday for questioning at the military intelligence headquarters on Sunday 8 November, 9am. His worst fear, he joked to a friend on the eve of the summons, was for the interrogation to stretch till 5pm.

Instead he was detained in an unknown location for two days until his sudden release on Tuesday noon.

Bahgat was being remanded in custody for four days pending investigations into accusations of “deliberately spreading false information with the purpose of harming public order or public interest” after publishing an investigative piece in October on the trial of a number of military officers. Had he been referred to trial Bahgat could have faced a prison term of up to three years based on articles 102 bis and 138 of the penal code, lawyers said.

On Sunday, as he was being questioned, Bahgat was not allowed access to lawyers or to use his cell phone inside the building in Nasr City, east Cairo. It wasn’t until eight hours had passed that he finally made a call. He was moved to a military prosecution facility elsewhere in the capital and requested a lawyer because he was facing charges that weren’t made clear to him at the time.

On the outskirts of Cairo, where a military complex hosts the military prosecution, Bahgat was interrogated for one and a half hour in the presence of a legion of lawyers that showed up for him. Lawyers described prosecutors as civil and the interrogation as smooth and said they were told that Bahgat would be released that evening, which didn’t happen. Instead, a decision was delayed to the following morning.

Bahgat was moved to an unknown location for the night and didn’t appear the following day when prosecutors informed lawyers he would be remanded in custody for four days pending investigations.

Local rights groups were swift to react, slamming the decision as a “form of direct terror bound to have a suffocating effect on any reporter” who attempted to widen the “limited space of freedom of expression”, according to a statement by 13 human rights organisations. An international outcry followed with condemnation and demands for Bahgat’s release by organisations like Amnesty Intentional, Human Rights Watch and Article 19.

On Monday United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described Bahgat’s arrest “as just the latest in a series of detentions of human rights defenders and others that are profoundly worrying”.

Bahgat’s release came hours before a solidarity protest at the Press Syndicate was scheduled and as heads of state from the Middle East and Latin America were assembling for the Arab-Latin summit in Saudi Arabia. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was among the attendees.

According to Mada Masr, Bahgat was released after he signed a document stating, “I, Hossam Bahgat, journalist at Mada Masr, declare that I will abide by legal and security procedures when publishing material pertaining to the Armed Forces. I was also not subjected to any moral or physical harm.”

Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Tuesday it was unclear if the military prosecution had dropped the charges leveled against him.

Ahmed Ragheb, one of Bahgat’s lawyers, said the document Bahgat signed “means nothing really” because it has no repercussions. It is a standard document which many reporters before Bahgat have signed in similar situations.

Law 313, which was issued in 1956 and amended in 1967, prohibits publishing content related to the Armed Forces without permission. Over the years its implementation became less rigid, a process that accelerated after the 2011 uprising toppled president Hosni Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) became Egypt’s de facto ruler. The military found itself under the spotlight, subjected to scrutiny that practically, if not officially, rendered the law defunct.

“A coup busted”, the story which led to Bahgat’s brief incarceration, was published on 14 October on the independent Mada Masr website. It focused on the trial and conviction of a number of military officers for plotting regime change with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

 “The story wasn’t directly about the military but about a military trial which doesn’t make it in violation of the law,” says Ragheb.

Bahgat, a political science graduate from Cairo University, began a career in journalism in the late 1990’s with the now-defunct bi-monthly Cairo Times news magazine where he developed an appetite for human rights work. He took a job with the then leading Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights but was dismissed for writing an article that criticised a security clampdown on an allegedly gay disco on a Nile boat. He founded the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights (EIPR) in 2002. It soon established itself as one of Egypt’s leading rights organisations.

Ten years on he decided to return to journalism and joined Mada Masr as a part timer, employing his legal research skills to write in-depth stories from a rights-based approach. 

He published several investigative pieces that altered the narrative on compelling issues related to the Mubaraks’ mansions, the controversial release of Jihadis under SCAF rule and the military trial of a jihadist cell. The stories received accolades within the press community in Egypt where they were a rare example of the long neglected genre of investigative journalism.

 “I’ve never seen Hossam that excited as his articles were shared and discussed,” said Mada Masr’s editor Attallah. “He felt so much gratification.”

By autumn of 2014, with reports citing unnamed sources predicting an imminent crackdown on prominent human rights defenders, Bahgat moved to New York City were he was a visiting scholar at Columbia Journalism School. Attallah says he attended auditing classes there and was more interested in honing his writing skills with the humility of a student “although by then he was probably Egypt’s most important investigate reporter” than turning into an Egypt expert in America.

In spring he made the decision to return to Cairo to resume investigative reporting.

While his release was met with relief within the press community, threats to the profession are far from over. According to a statement expressing “deep concern at the mounting attacks on press freedoms” issued by the Press Syndicate on Monday, 32 journalists are currently in prison. In the past few weeks three reporters –Hisham Gaafar, Hossam El-Sayed and Mahmoud Mustafa-who are also members of the syndicate were arrested, then forcibly disappeared for days before they appeared before prosecutors, said the statement.

Because of this environment, “there’s a measure of fear inside every independent reporter, so we know there are risks,” said Attallah, “but we wouldn’t want to be journalists the day we decide we are too scared to be reporting.”

Bahgat’s arrest coincided with the high profile apprehension of business tycoon and founder of the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper Salah Diab and his son on charges of possessing unlicensed weapons. “The two arrests should be seen within the same context,” said Hisham Kassem, Al-Masry Al-Youm’s founding publisher. It’s not a coincidence, he said, that the detentions occurred after president El-Sisi criticized the media in a speech last week.

On Tuesday, Diab was remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigation, but was unexpectedly released on bail Wednesday.

In a statement issued a few hours after his release, Bahgat said he was subjected to several procedural violations during his detention time, including having to insist — despite severe pressure — on his legal right to request a lawyer.

“I reassert my rejection of the criminalisation of journalistic work, employing the penal code to jail reporters and trying civilians before military courts,” he added.

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