Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Syndicate lobbies for the release of jailed reporters

The Press Syndicate is launching a campaign demanding the release of 18 imprisoned journalists, Amira Howeidy reports

Syndicate lobbies for the release of jailed report
Syndicate lobbies for the release of jailed report
Al-Ahram Weekly

The black stairs at the entrance to the Press Syndicate’s downtown headquarters were scheduled to host a protest demanding the release of over a dozen journalists currently held in prisons. Protestors were invited to show up dressed in white, the colour those held pre-trial detention are required to wear. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday, family members of jailed reporters were planning a press conference.

It is all part of a campaign, launched earlier this week, to press the authorities to release journalists and improve the conditions in which detainees are held. The campaign hopes its slogans — “We shall treat them and release them” and “Journalism is not a crime” — will be widely circulated on social media networks and create greater awareness of the legal situation faced by incarcerated journalists.

Khaled Al-Balshi, a member of the Press Syndicate council and editor of the independent Al-Bedaya online newspaper, says that 32 reporters are currently in prison, 18 of whom were detained for pursuing their profession. They face trumped up charges, including being members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, though there is no evidence to support the claims, he said in a press conference on Monday.

The campaign is being launched days before the trial of 27-year-old photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zaid —known as Shawkan — opens on Saturday 12 December, and follows the arrest of 32-year-old journalist and Sinai expert Ismail Alexandrani more than a week ago. A month ago, investigative journalist and human rights defender Hossam Bahgat was detained for a few days on charges related to his published work.

For almost two years, and under two different leaderships, the Press Syndicate has been inundated with cases of journalists facing serious criminal charges. Only a minority of the tens of reporters detained have been released. Others, held in both Tora and high security Scorpion prison, face harsh conditions.

According to Al-Balshi at least seven journalists have been denied medical care and family visits, the only opportunity to supply prisoners with warm clothes, blankets and food. Speakers at the press conference described how journalists are forced to sleep on the floor of their cells, without mattresses, which are not allowed to be brought to prisons.

Earlier this week the syndicate filed complaints about 18 cases with the public prosecutor, including the details of seven cases in which journalists have been held for longer than the two-year period of pre-trial detention which is the maximum allowed under the law. The syndicate has also requested permits to visit prisons where journalists are held.

There are cases of journalists receiving prison sentences following their trials. Hassan Qabani, a reporter with the independent newspaper Al-Karama, was handed a life sentence in April for allegedly spying for Norway. After months of being denied family visits, his wife won a court order granting her the right to visit him as per the law but prison authorities have refused to implement it.

“Even if jailed reporters face real charges they should not be suffering like this,” said Al-Balshi.

Other cases include reporters whose sentences were overturned by the Court of Cassation yet remain in prison.

“Why are these journalists still being held?” asks Al-Balshi. “They should be freed, not languishing in cells.”

The campaign will use peaceful, legal methods of protest to pressure the authorities, he said. Plans being discussed include marches to the public prosecutor’s office and, possibly, to the newly elected parliament. Whether such tactics will work remains to be seen.

Speakers at the press conference gave details of the health condition of seven journalists. They were suffering a range of illnesses, including one case of spondylosis in the neck and spinal cord, two cases of Hepatitis C virus (HCV), diabetes and high blood pressure. One journalist, Hani Salaheddin, has inflammation of the retina and was recently diagnosed with a tumour in his eye which doctors say requires speedy surgical intervention to prevent him losing his sight. The necessary surgery has not been provided.

Al-Balshi described a policy of neglect and refusal by prison authorities to provide health care. In some cases prisoners are told they will go to hospital only to be driven around in police trucks and then returned to prison.

Shawkan will have been held for 850 days in pre-trial detention when his trial opens on Saturday. Despite repeated appeals for his release by his family, and campaigns on his behalf by local and international reporters, the authorities have shown no signs of responding.

“We are now begging for his release and that’s a very difficult thing to do,” his brother Mohamed said. “There is no hope.”

Shawkan was arrested on 14 August, the day police and soldiers dispersed a sit-in by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi which he was covering. Ahead of the dispersal the Interior Ministry invited reporters to cover the event. Shawkan responded to that call.

“Reporting has become a dangerous profession here, may God be with you,” his brother told reporters.  

Regime supporters defend the extended incarceration of freelance reporters by arguing that as long as they’re not accredited to the Press Syndicate they cannot be treated as journalists. The Press Syndicate has responded by lobbying for their release as it would for registered members.

“If anyone gets to decide who is and is not a reporter it’s us,” says Al-Balshi.

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