Working as a correspondent in Egypt is not easy nowadays. Two weeks ago, I had to leave Egypt in a rush, the country that I called home for almost four years. The Spanish authorities warned me that I was at an imminent risk of being arrested and prosecuted. I was shocked because I had never been directly harassed by the Egyptian authorities. In addition, President Abdelfattah al Sisi had publicly stated repeatedly that it was a mistake to indict foreign reporters. Instead, he argued, they should be deported. Given the precedents, I decided to follow the advice of the Spanish ah and not to return to Cairo.
I still do not know why I was singled out among the community of correspondents. Certainly, I had contacts with the opposition, as most of my colleagues also had. My newspaper, El Pais, has been very critical of the current government in its editorials, and I wrote several articles on thorny issues. However, our coverage has not been an exception among the international press.
Maybe my problems stem from the publication of the book “Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood”, in which I analyze the trajectory of this Islamist movement after the Egyptian Revolution. We should not overlook the fact that Emad Shahin, a distinguished professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Islamist movements, was recently sentenced to death in absentia. However, my book was published in March and it is not less critical of the Brotherhood than it is of the current regime.
In general, all foreign journalists in Egypt have got used to working under pressure during the last years. Egyptian authorities’ harassment ranges from the imposition of new administrative obstacles to the arrest for several hours without apparent fault. Nowadays, obtaining a temporary journalist visa is close to impossible and it is even necessary a monthly permit to take pictures or shoot a video in the street. The violation of any of these rules can result in serious consequences.
In addition, the narrative of pro-government mass media arguing that all correspondents are spies puts their physical integrity at risk. Not surprisingly, last year, three Spanish journalists were brutally assaulted by a mob at a demonstration in favor of al Sisi in the iconic Tahrir Square.
So far, the worst case of harassment happened to a crew of Al Jazeera. Three journalists were arrested and prosecuted in December 2013 after interviewing several members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that ruled the country for a year, but is considered a “terrorist organization” by the current government. One of the reporters, the Australian Peter Greste, was deported after spending more than a year in jail. His twocolleagues, Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian-Canadian dual nationality, Mohamed Baher, are still locked in a legal battle to achieve their freedom.
Once all this said, it should be noted that Egyptian journalists are exposed to much greater dangers, particularly those working for Arabic-speaking media. Those who dare to deviate from the official narrative risk being fired, arrested, prosecuted and even tortured. According to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are 18 reporters in prison because of their journalistic work. This data places Egypt among the most dangerous countries for this profession. Among them, Mohamed Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, a young photojournalist who has spent more than 23 months in custody for taking pictures of an opposition demonstration. According to his relatives, he is very sick.
In this context of lack of press freedoms, the work of foreign correspondents is especially important. They are able to cover issues that could never pass the filter of censorship or self-censorship in mainstream Egyptian media. For example, it was thanks to the presence of foreign media and the courage of some activists that it was revealed the existence of secret prisons in Egypt where horrendous abuses take place. Without the foreign media, the voices of many victims would be buried in a spiral of fear. Hence, it is crucial that Western governments are committed to preserve spaces of freedom for foreign correspondents in Egypt.
Translation of an article published in EL PAIS on July 1st