Detained journalist protests arrest, as researchers debate number of journalists detained

Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a freelance photojournalist who was arbitrarily detained during the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya protest last August, released an open letter via Facebook condemning his arrest and continued detainment, on Saturday.

In the letter published by the official campaigners for his freedom, Abou Zeid known professionally as Shawkan, condemned his long detainment stating, “I have reached day 550 of ‘temporary’ imprisonment. It is an imprisonment that has no color, taste, shape or even a scent. It is senseless!”

He also pointed to hypocrisy of the Egyptian government’s treatment of Egyptian journalists as opposed to foreign ones. “I will send my condolences to myself and to all my fellow Egyptian journalists who don’t own another passport or have a big organization to stand with them,” he wrote referencing the recent release of Australian journalist Peter Greste,“I am an Egyptian. My quarrel with my country is simply that I am an Egyptian, an Egyptian journalist.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree in November allowing for the deportation of foreign nationals currently detained in Egyptian prisons. The decree resulted in Greste’s release in early February, with Egyptian-Canadian colleague Mohamed Fahmy renouning his Egyptian citizenship in anticipation of his release. However, the fate of fellow Al-Jazeera journalist Baher Mohamed, who has been jailed for more than 400 days and who only possesses Egyptian citizenship, remains uncertain.

Shawkan and Mohamed are only two of many journalists who are currently imprisoned. The exact number of journalists who have been arrested and remain in detention is debated among researchers and rights organizations.

In December Ahmad Atwan, a journalist at the Brotherhood-affiliated Misr Alan news channel, released a list of the names of 74 journalists that, according to Atwan, are currently detained on charges relating to their profession. However the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) asserts there are only 11 journalists currently in prison, while the Arab Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI) states that 60 journalists are in custody.

The Journalists Syndicate legal consultant Sayed Abou Zeid told Mada Masr that they will soon release a report documenting the number of detained journalists, but did not give any further details.

Shaimaa Aboul Kheir, a former researcher at CJP and current coordinator of Shawkan’s campaign, told Mada Masr that the number dispute revolves around the conditions under which journalists were arrested.

“We are hearing contradictory numbers, and here we have to differentiate between journalists who were arrested while covering events, and those who were participating in these political events. This line is not clear with most of these calculations,” she explained.

For Kheir, there is a difference between investigating the crackdown on the right to free speech and association, and the specific targeting of journalists.

“Were those arrested reporting at the time of arrest, or chanting in the march, for example? It is very difficult to determine that,” she explained. “Some people are said to be journalists just because they were holding a camera. Not everyone who holds a camera is a journalist, it is a very important distinction that no one is paying attention to.” 

Mada Masr did a random check of the names included on Atwan’s list and found out that many of those listed were journalists, but they were not arrested on the job. For example, Emad Abou Zeid, who works for Al-Ahram Gate in Beni Suef, was arrested from his home while he was sitting with three Al-Azhar sheikhs, and faces terrorism and violence charges.

Gamal Eid, a rights lawyer and executive director of the Arab Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI), explained to Mada Masr that the network gathered a list of 60 imprisoned journalists who were arrested either while they reporting or due to reasons related to their profession.

“For example, our list includes the chief editor of Al-Shaab newspaper, Magdy Hussien, who was jailed for his journalistic position, not due to his affiliation with the Brotherhood’s National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy,” he explained. However, Eid said the list does not include journalists who were arrested due to their political activity, including Magdy Qorqor, the former spokesperson for the outlawed alliance.

Eid added that most journalists are detained pending investigations, although there are a few currently serving prison sentences.

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