Egypt… you won’t blink an eye.” This cliché is borrowed from the slogan of the Rotana Cinema satellite channel and it has been exclaimed frequently over the past four years, during which Egypt has witnessed countless astounding events to which the Arabs – even the whole world – cannot turn a blind eye. The Egyptian situation has occupied news headlines and articles in the most prominent international media and social media. This has not just been about Egyptian news but the portrayal of “Egypt” as a whole, in all its surreal mirth and tragedy.
The world could not, and did not want to, “blink an eye”, for would any sensible journalist miss any of the exciting news stories unfolding due to their importance or because they would boost circulation?
Two years ago, a small conspiracy was prepared in Egypt’s special judicial circuits formed by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to try his political opponents. Blessed as I am with shrewdness, and as I categorically deny the plausibility of conspiracy theories – whose existence seems a myth comparable to that of goblins and phoenixes – I took a nibble at it.
Worldwide advocates of journalists’ rights were used as a key element in the conspiracy although it must be said that most were not aware of this. False victories for freedom of the press were crafted skilfully in order to bury related and more disturbing issues quietly. As for me, I acclaim these small victories while the Press Syndicate takes part in the secret burial of more important issues, along with a group of human rights advocates and journalists acting as pallbearers.
While the case of the Al-Jazeera journalists was in the limelight, 14 Egyptian journalists were arrested. They spent several months in prison without any charges being made, and were then charged collectively in “The Case of Media Professionals – Case No. 317” (in Egypt, every court case typically has both a number and a name). The defendants were accused of a number of charges related to their media practices.
After a while, some journalists were informed of the referral of their case to the court; the following day they discovered that no referral had taken place. After several weeks, they were surprised to learn that the name of the case against them had been changed to “Rabaa Operation Room” and an incredible number of additional charges had been added to the list against them; these ranged from accusations of violence, conspiracy to carry out a coup d’état, committing arson attacks on churches, terrorising citizens and kidnapping Adly Mansour (yes, you read that right). Finally, to aim a deadly strike across the bows of the rights advocates and media forums, the General Guide and a group of officials of the Muslim Brotherhood were also brought in as defendants in the same case.
The coup regime is shameless about arresting journalists. However, after the hype surrounding the arrest of the Al-Jazeera journalists in the “Marriott Cell” case, the regime decided to end the headache of freedom of the press, especially with the planned intention to brutalise those 14 journalists who were working at anti-coup institutions. Their case was transformed by the regime from an issue of media rights to a terrorism-related case and a political hot potato, where the name of the General Guide was exploited to divert attention towards the most recent developments of his trial and that of the other Brotherhood leaders, and away from any discussion of rights issues.
Unfortunately, even those who are aware of this matter pretended not to notice it, and dealt with the case as being in the mighty hand of the fascist regime and its majestic judicial system. Al-Jazeera, which found it enough only to demand the freedom of its own detained journalists (as did the Egyptian media), broadcast news of the case only with regard to it being a case involving the General Guide and the Brotherhood cohort. So too did people around the world, whether they were concerned with freedom or opposed to the coup regime.
Together with some concerned colleagues, I have exchanged correspondence with organisations championing freedom of the press to draw attention to the case of the 14 journalists. These same organisations were issuing successive statements demanding the release of the Al-Jazeera journalists. I wonder, are they, as rights advocates, concerned with the freedom of any journalist in principle? Or is the decisive factor his/her reputation, nationality or school of thought? Or is what matters the fact that the conspiracy to hush up a case prevails, such as that of the 14 other journalists?
When, a few months later, the Al-Jazeera journalists were released it was victory of a kind, albeit far from a victory for freedom of the press. A festive air dominated TV channels, the internet and human rights forums, applauding the victory as an example of freedom of speech and the press. So happy were they by the decision that some rights advocates seemed to give their consciences a rest; they deliberately turned a blind eye to the case of the 14 journalists, apart from the occasional sheepish statement. The media in Egypt, worldwide and even that of the opposition was not much better, meekly following the burial procession of Case No. 317 long after its death by politicisation.
Last April, Judge M Naguib Shehata passed unprecedented sentences against the 14 journalists in Case No. 317; one was sentenced to death and the 13 others were given life, without there being a shred of evidence of their involvement in the crimes for which they were convicted. They were deliberately and clearly brutalised, and a large number of procedural breaches were committed. These sentences were so surprising that some of those whose consciences had hitherto remained dormant felt compelled to rise up and finally decide – after two years – to issue a rights-based statement or a media news article about them.
However, they soon went back to their siesta until further notice. Significant international organisations issued similar statements, and although this was not an adequate or a commensurate act, compared to their support for Al-Jazeera and other foreign journalists whose cases were less critical, these statements have now become a burden of proof against everyone who claimed to be uninformed of the case, the degree of its gravity and the dagger in the heart of freedom of the press that will remain until we pull it out. These statement are proof borne by the head of the Press Syndicate, Yehia Qallash, who is fully aware of the details of Case No. 317. The journalists’ relatives have tried to contact them repeatedly, and have had nothing but empty promises from the international community.
Dozens of journalists are now languishing in Egyptian prisons for simply doing their job. Several journalists were arrested recently at the site of the explosion near the Italian Consulate and the Zenhom Mortuary. Journalists will continue to be arrested and brutalised, and this noble profession will continue to be stifled and violated, as long as everyone only demands freedom for foreign journalists or those working for large media networks. Winning such cases is a triumph, and a victory for their employers, but it is clearly not a victory for freedom of the press, which was smashed on the first day that we saw and took part in the injustice committed in the summer of 2013; and we might be next.
There is still one last chance for unbiased, principled and rights-based action. Case No. 317 is now in the cassation process, which could take another two years, unless immediate and genuine action is taken by rights-advocates, media professionals and members of the press syndicate to push for the release of the journalists as soon as possible. That would truly be a victory for a just cause; true freedom of the press no matter where journalists are from and who they work for.
Mona Hedaya is a Palestinian blogger who writes about personal and public issues, and is concerned with rights and freedoms issues. She works in social media and digital content for the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies and is a Software Engineering graduate.