Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression

AFTE welcomes the release of some journalists

Date : Monday, 15 March, 2021
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The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) welcomes – for the second time – the efforts exerted by the chairman of the State Information Service and the head of the Journalists Syndicate, Diaa Rashwan, as well as the Syndicate’s Council, to release three journalists who were held in pretrial detention in connection to various cases.

Mostafa Saqr, Islam al-Kalhi and Hassan al-Qabbani were detained on charges of spreading false news.

AFTE calls on Rashwan and the Syndicate’s Council to review all cases of imprisoned journalists with the aim of helping release them, so that the current year will witness the cessation of harassment of journalists because of their journalistic work.

Last Sunday, Rashwan promised on his official Facebook page “good news about our colleagues [journalists] who are remanded in custody”. In the evening of the same day, the Supreme State Security Prosecution decided to release Kalhi, Qabbani, and Saqr under precautionary measures.

Kalhi and Qabbani faced charges of spreading false news in Cases No. 855 of 2020 and No. 1480 of 2019 respectively, while Saqr faced charges of joining a banned terrorist group, threatening public peace and spreading false news in Case No. 1530 of 2019.

According to Article 201 of the Criminal Procedures Law, the authorities concerned with pretrial detention may apply one of three measures instead of detention, namely “obligating the defendant not to leave his residence, or obligating him to go to the police station at specific times, or prohibiting him from going to specific places”. The same law stipulates that the defendant may be imprisoned in the event of violating these measures.

According to AFTE, at least 16 journalists are currently imprisoned in Egypt; all of them were arrested for practicing their journalistic duties. They have been held in pretrial detention for a long time, sometimes for more than two years (the maximum period stated by law for pretrial detention in Egypt) without trial. Thus, pretrial detention has turned into a punishment of journalists, rather than a precautionary measure to protect investigations, as described by law. Moreover, the investigation bodies submit to the Public Prosecution new reports against those who have spent the two-year period in detention. Thus, a new pattern of violation against journalists has emerged, known as “recycling”, which means that an accused journalist could remain in pretrial detention for a period of up to four years without trial.

AFTE has repeatedly called on the bodies responsible for issuing pretrial detention decisions to stop using pretrial detention as a punishment, which makes it a means of abuse. It pointed out the powers granted to the Public Prosecution and judges to apply precautionary measures instead of pretrial detention.

AFTE sent an official letter to the head of the Journalists Syndicate and the Syndicate’s Council on 15 December 2020 praising their previous efforts to help free a number of journalists last November, including editor-in-chief of the “Masr Al-Arabia” website Adel Sabry, Haitham Mahgoub, Sameh Haneen and others.

As important as these steps are, they should be doubled to include the rest of imprisoned journalists. AFTE presents a list of imprisoned journalists to the Syndicate of Journalists and the Syndicate’s Council. In this statement, it reviews the most prominent cases, with the aim of encouraging the Syndicate’s efforts to free the imprisoned journalists and bring this issue to an end in a way that guarantees the protection of freedom of the press.

  • Journalist Gamal al-Gamal was arrested at Cairo Airport upon his return from Istanbul on 22 February. He was arrested for his articles that were critical of the government policies. He received a phone call from the President of the Republic in 2014, where the president blamed him for criticizing the government. In 2015, Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper suspended his articles for the same reason. Then, he left Egypt and lived in Turkey, where he continued to publish his anti-government articles on the Arabi 21 website. Gamal appeared at the headquarters of the Supreme State Security Prosecution late on 27 February 2021 in connection to Case No. 977 of 2017. He faced charges of joining a group established in violation of the law, spreading false news, and using a social media account for the purpose of committing the second crime.
  • Hamdy Atef is a fourth-grade student at the Faculty of Arts’ Department of Journalism. He works as a trainee and a reporter in the accidents section of the Misr al-Balad newspaper. He also works as a reporter for Al-Nabaa, Al-Bayan and Al-Shura newspapers. On 4 January 2021, a police force arrested him from his home in Zefta, Gharbia Governorate. Atef appeared before the State Security Prosecution at the Fifth Settlement in Cairo on 11 January in Case No. 1017 of 2020, where he faced charges of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news. He was arrested for his coverage of the crisis of Covid-19 patients at Zefta General Hospital, where some died due to oxygen shortages.
  • Moataz Wadnan is an Egyptian journalist who worked as an editor for the “HuffPost Arabi” website before he was arrested. He previously worked for several Egyptian newspapers, including “Ahl Masr” and “Baladna al-Youm”. On 16 February 2018, a National Security force arrested him while he was riding a taxi. He appeared before the State Security Prosecution for the first time on 21 February as a defendant in Case No. 441 of 2018, where he was charged with joining a group established in violation of the law and spreading false news. On 21 February 2020, Wadnan exceeded two years of pretrial detention in the same case, but the State Security Prosecution did not order his release until 7 May 2020. He did not leave the Scorpion Prison despite the prosecution’s decision to release him. On 9 May 2020, he appeared before the State Security Prosecution as a defendant in a new case bearing No. 1898 of 2019 where he was charged with promoting terrorist acts. He was remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigation. Wadnan was arrested after he conducted an interview with former head of the Central Auditing Organization Hisham Geneina.

AFTE affirms its understanding of the general context that accompanied Rashwan’s intervention to release a number of journalists, whether these days or late last year. The move comes in the run up for the midterm election of the Syndicate’s Council, scheduled to take place on 19 March. AFTE stresses that such moves should be an approach for the Syndicate’s Council all the time, not only during the “election season”. This was emphasized by Rashwan himself when he said: “Seeking to release colleagues who are held in pretrial detention… is not an electoral occasion, an occasional effort, or a subject for political or union bidding or for use in election battles that will be outdated by time. Rather, it is a permanent duty.”

The release of journalists ahead of the midterm election of the Syndicate’s Council can be viewed from different perspectives, but in general it indicates the importance of democracy and the right to peaceful assembly. Competition for achieving the journalists’ interests, on top of which is stopping the harassment and imprisonment of journalists, is a legitimate and important demand in all times, and it should continue no matter how the Syndicate’s Council members have changed.

AFTE calls on all candidates and members of the General Assembly of the Journalists Syndicate to place the issue of imprisoned journalists on top of priorities of the next general assembly. It also calls for making progress in other urgent issues, such as the blocked news websites, the restrictions on and prosecution of journalists working for foreign media, and the delay and intransigence in deciding on requests for licensing a number of news websites.

In a parallel context, AFTE calls on Public Prosecutor Hamada al-Sawy to order the review of all cases of imprisoned journalists. Rashwan’s interventions over the last three months to release about ten journalists indicate that the decisions to imprison these journalists were not often right, as they were mainly based on investigations conducted by the security agencies. The detention of these journalists was renewed and they were recycled (charged in new cases) despite the possibility of releasing them from the very beginning, even under precautionary measures, or referring them to trial in the worst case.