Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1294, (5 - 11 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The press stands on its dignity

The Press Syndicate has launched legal action against the minister of interior after police stormed its headquarters on Sunday, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Sunday, for the first time in its history, the Press Syndicate was raided by police. The raid represents a turning point in the security forces’ policy towards journalists and has led to an open-ended sit-in at the syndicate by journalists demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar.

“Raiding the syndicate’s premises violates the constitution, violates the law, violates the freedom of the press, violates everything the state should stand for,” said a statement issued by the board of the Press Syndicate on Monday.

On Tuesday, syndicate chairman Yehia Qallash said legal complaints have been filed with the prosecutor-general against the minister of interior and the head of the Cairo Security Directorate.

On the same day, syndicate council members joined hundreds of journalists marching in the streets around the syndicate building to protest the “siege” imposed by security forces after police closed all streets leading to the journalists’ headquarters. Heavily armed swat teams and barbed wire-covered transport vehicles withdrew from the street directly in front of the syndicate building but remained parked nearby.

The prosecutor-general issued a ban on publishing news about the legal case of the arrest of the two journalists from the Press Syndicate. The prosecutor-general’s statement said that arresting the journalists from the Press Syndicate headquarters is “legally and constitutionally correct”. The statement added that if investigations reveal that the Press Syndicate chairman allowed the two journalists to take refuge in the Press Syndicate headquarters, then it will be considered a crime in accordance with the penal code.

The crisis erupted on Sunday night when a group of police officers entered the Press Syndicate to arrest journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka. The two work for January Gate, a website critical of the government. They had begun their own sit-in at the union headquarters after discovering the police had searched their homes while looking for them days before they were arrested.

Prosecutors ordered the detention of Badr and Al-Sakka for 15 days on Monday pending investigations on charges that include spreading false news, harming national unity and plotting to suspend the constitution.

In a statement released on Monday night prosecutors said they issued an arrest warrant for the two journalists and seven others on 19 April, based on police claims that the nine “were in possession of firearms and Molotov cocktails with the aim of carrying out attacks on police, army forces and vital facilities”.

The prosecution said police investigations showed the suspects were spreading “false news and rumours to incite the public through social media outlets in the lead up to Sinai Liberation Day on 25 April”.

The prosecutor did not comment on the manner of the two journalists’ arrest at the Press Syndicate.

On the same day the prosecution statement was released, Qallash issued his own statement demanding the immediate sacking of the interior minister and an official apology from the government. The statement described the police’s entry into the building as a “raid by security forces whose barbarism and aggression against the dignity of the press have taken the journalistic community and the Egyptian people by surprise”.

According to Qallash, dozens of officers stormed into the building to arrest the two journalists who were on the first floor. The police, he continued, broke the press law, which stipulates they must obtain the approval of the prosecution-general before entering the premises of the syndicate and can only do so in the presence of the chairman of the union.

Shortly after the incident hundreds of journalists, lawyers and human rights activists began a sit-in to protest the actions of the police.

The minister of interior’s response, at least in public, has been terse. The ministry has issued a single statement denying that police entered the building by force. It claims that only eight officers were involved, acting on an arrest warrant to detain two journalists who had been organising protests with the aim of destabilising the state.

“The Ministry of Interior did not raid the syndicate or use any kind of force in arresting the two who turned themselves in as soon as they were told a warrant had been issued,” read the statement.

The ministry went on to stress that it “appreciates journalists and the patriotic role they play,” and “respects all freedom of opinion and expression”.

A day before the raid police prevented hundreds of workers from holding a meeting to commemorate International Workers’ Day at the Press Syndicate.

Though the syndicate’s relationship with the security apparatus has passed through difficult times before, this is the first time in the syndicate’s 75-year history that its premises have been raided.

“The syndicate’s board believes this aggression against the syndicate’s headquarters in violation of the law, the constitution and all national and international norms, can only be erased with the dismissal of the interior minister,” said Press Syndicate Chairman Qallash.

The syndicate has invited members to continue a round-the-clock sit-in and called for a general assembly on Wednesday, the day Al-Ahram Weekly goes to print.

On Tuesday, state-owned and private newspapers echoed Qallash’s demands, publishing headlines demanding the removal of the minister of interior. In its editorial on Tuesday, Al-Ahram daily said that the storming of the syndicate was incontrovertible evidence that the minister of interior held both the constitution and the law in contempt.

The editorial went on to demand the sacking of the interior minister in response to “a heinous act that left the entire country feeling sick”.

It continued, “The leaders of the Interior Ministry failed to realise that the disgraceful act of storming the Press Syndicate was both unprecedented and unacceptable.”

The unsigned editorial went on to criticise the Interior Ministry’s general performance.

“The Interior Ministry has made many mistakes recently. Now it has concluded them with its shameful acts against journalists and the media.

“The ministry won’t succeed in its malicious goal of gagging mouths and stifling the freedom of opinion and expression, rights enshrined in our constitution which the leaders of our security forces have yet to read.”

The editorial warned that the only way Egypt can move forward is through freedom of opinion. In its absence “the state will be the first to pay the price”.

The editorial claimed that “security officials” are painting a deceptive picture of the state of the nation to Egypt’s political leadership.

It is the first time in 26 years that Al-Ahram has used its op-ed to demand the resignation of a senior government official. In 1990 then president Hosni Mubarak sacked his minister of interior, Zaki Badr, after a series of police actions against journalists. Zaki formally apologised to journalists and visited the Press Syndicate but the then chairman of the board, Ibrahim Nafie, refused to accept the apology and demanded Badr’s sacking.

By Tuesday it was clear that Abdel-Ghaffar had no intention of emulating his predecessor and issuing an apology. The only thing journalists did receive was a leaked memo from the Interior Ministry’s media team revealing their strategy to deal with the crisis.

“We expect a strong wave of criticism targeting the Ministry of Interior’s leadership, including from talk show presenters. We will hold our position, which is that we entered the Press Syndicate with a warrant.”

The memo instructed the media team to contact TV channels to get them to host former police generals who could respond to the Press Syndicate’s accusations on evening talk shows.

Other professional syndicates and unions have expressed their solidarity with the Press Syndicate.

Sameh Ashour, the chairman of the Lawyers Syndicate, said lawyers have a stake in defending freedom of expression and the press. Dozens of members of the Lawyers Syndicate are facing charges of breaking the protest law.

On Monday the Engineers Syndicate said the Interior Ministry’s actions constituted a “disgraceful aggression” and demanded an immediate investigation into the circumstances of the journalists’ arrests. It offered its “full support” to the Press Syndicate during any legal proceedings against the Interior Ministry.

The Doctors Syndicate also issued a statement saying it was ready to back any legal action the Press Syndicate plans to take. Two months ago doctors found themselves in conflict with the minister of interior after a policeman entered a hospital in Cairo’s Matarya district to demand treatment and attacked doctors on duty when he was asked to wait.

The 25-30 bloc, a small coalition of progressive MPs, also condemned the police attack and the arrests, calling it an “unjustifiable escalation against opinion makers”. The MPs called on Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to issue an official apology to journalists and demanded the release of all those detained during protests on 15 April against the transfer of the sovereignty of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

The police storming of the Press Syndicate also prompted international criticism. In a statement issued on Tuesday, the EU said: “What happened is a worrying development, and continues a trend of restricting space for civil society and the freedom of expression, as manifested by the high number of arrests following the April protests.”

The statement continued, “Freedom of assembly and press freedom are essential for democracy, to guarantee that all peaceful voices are heard and respected.”

The US urged the Egyptian government to “uphold the people’s basic rights to freedom of expression”.

In a press briefing in Washington on Monday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said that the US administration was aware that two journalists had been arrested after security forces stormed the Press Syndicate and noted the anger it has prompted against the Ministry of Interior.

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