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Reporters Without Borders decries persecution of journalists under Sisi

“The situation of journalists in Egypt is unacceptable,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) declared in a letter sent to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday. The group exhorted the president to release the dozens of journalists, bloggers and media staffers currently detained in Egyptian jails.

The Journalists Syndicate has documented at least 32 journalists currently detained or serving prison sentences nationwide, of which at least 18 were arrested while reporting news in public.

In April 2015, RSF ranked Egypt very poorly in its global press freedom index, at 158 out of 180 countries. Since then, the number of media raids and the arrests and prosecution of journalists and editors has continued to rise. Prominent cases include that of investigative reporter Hossam Bahgat, who in early November 2015 was summoned for questioning by military intelligence pursuant to an article he wrote for Mada Masr. Bahgat was detained and released two days later, only after signing an agreement to not write about the Armed Forces beyond the legal bounds set for him. The case against him may be ongoing.

Similar incidents took place in December and January against several other media professionals.

“In 2015, Egypt became one the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. In most cases, their only ‘error’ was to have covered demonstrations or protests or to have spoken with members of the Muslim Brotherhood (which [Egypt has] declared to be a ‘terrorist organization’) in the course of their reporting,” the group continued.

In December 2015, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Egypt as the second worst jailer of journalists worldwide, trailing shortly behind China. The number of jailed journalists in Egypt rose dramatically in 2015, CPJ said, nearly doubling in number after Sisi’s administration assumed power.

RWB argued that several other journalists are being “held on trumped-up charges unrelated to press offenses,” including charges of affiliation with a terrorist organization, partaking in unauthorized protests, disseminating false information and disturbing the public order.

For instance, on November 29, authorities arrested the investigative journalist and sociopolitical researcher Ismail Alexandrani on charges of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and disseminating false information. His detention has repeatedly been renewed since his arrest. Amnesty International and several other rights groups decried the arrest, arguing Alexandrani is being targeted for his criticism of the authorities in his academic and journalistic work.

“Working as a journalist in Egypt has become as dangerous as openly demonstrating against the regime,” the RWB statement claimed.

Many of these detained journalists have been “subjected to unjust trials that violate Egypt’s 2014 Constitution and international human rights law, demonstrating the Egyptian justice system’s lack of independence,” the letter charged. “Respect for the fundamental freedoms of Egyptian citizens and foreign residents has unfortunately declined since [Sisi] became Egypt’s president in 2014.”

RWB’s statement pointed to certain high-profile cases of journalists and media staffers held behind bars since the military-led takeover of government on July 3, 2013. Among them, photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (popularly known as Shawkan), who spent more than two years in jail before standing trial, violating the Penal Code’s two-year cap on pretrial detention.

The French NGO’s statement noted that several journalists have been sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment, while others have been tortured or denied critical medical treatment while in detention.

RWB also pointed to the three journalists killed by security forces while covering the dispersal of the pro-Brotherhood Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in on August 14, 2013.

More than two years later, “no investigation had been opened into the deaths of these journalists or the massacre that took place that day, and none of those responsible have been arrested,” said RWB, adding that no security personnel have been held accountable for the murders of journalists since the popular uprising of January 2011.

The statement concluded with an exhortation “to release these unjustly detained journalists and to stop persecuting them. Otherwise, Egypt’s prospects for the future will be very dim in the long term.”