A freelance photojournalist forgotten behind prison walls

In a scene reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, a group of photojournalists sat on the platform of the Journalists Syndicate with bandages on their mouths, raising photos of Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a freelance photojournalist arbitrarily detained since the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya protest last August.

Known as Shawkan, most of the photojournalists’ colleagues found out about his detention only recently, when Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah al-Shamy, detained in similar conditions, was released over a month ago.

Shawkan’s brother, Mohamed, spoke to Mada Masr of his brother’s suffering, as he finds himself “forgotten” behind prison walls.

“For a year, my brother is being held without charges in prison, he was detained during the dispersal of Rabea and his detention has been renewed since then. My brother never held a gun, he was simply doing his job, but unfortunately he was a freelancer, so he had no institution to back him or offer any support. He does not work for Al Jazeera,” Mohamed said.

Shamy was released on July 16, after 10 months of administrative detention and five months of hunger strike, which resulted in a dramatic deterioration of his health condition. His case gained widespread local and international attention as human rights organizations called for his release.

Al Jazeera’s campaign to free Shamy and three other of its journalists – now serving 7-year sentences – and his hunger strike contributed greatly to his release. Al Jazeera’s effective social media campaign and the condemnation of international media and human rights organizations lobbied the Egyptian authorities to release him.

Mohamed believes that the backing of Al Jazeera contributed greatly to Shamy’s release, contrary to his brother Shawkan, who is growing increasingly devastated with the silence around his case.

“I pleaded to a lot of reporters to write about Shawkan, but they seemed more interested in covering stories related to the war on terrorism rather than writing about their detained colleague,” Mohamed said.

Photojournalist Khaled Desouki, who works for a leading news agency, told Mada Masr he only heard about Shawkan’s case after Shamy’s release. “We were told that there was another journalist detained in similar conditions. This was the time when we found out about Shawkan’s story,” he said.

Desouki added that all efforts to release Shawkan are merely personal initiatives by fellow photojournalists, who feel the danger surrounding them daily while doing their job.

“We are acting individually, the only thing we can do is to protest peacefully and use our personal connections to ensure his release. We hope that the public prosecutor will listen to us one day,” he said.

The only official accreditation that can grant a journalist a considerable level of protection in Egypt is joining the Journalists Syndicate, and obtaining a membership card has been impossible for hundreds if not thousands of young journalists who either work on a freelance basis or struggle inside their institutions to “win” the membership.

Joining the syndicate requires journalists to be officially contracted in newspapers and news agencies only, leaving many freelancers and those who work in news websites with no official accreditation or protection.

“In civilized countries, journalists do not need stamped syndicate membership cards to be considered journalists with acknowledged rights. But in Egypt, belonging to an institution makes a huge difference for security,” Desouki said.

Mohamed recounted his experience trying to get the Journalists Syndicate to provide any legal protection for his detained brother, to no avail.

A source in the Journalists Syndicate, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Mada Masr that it has been increasingly difficult to prove that freelance journalists are still journalists at the end of the day.

“We have three kinds of journalists, those who have the membership, those who don’t have the membership but are employed within well-known news organizations, and those who work as freelancers, who are mostly difficult to deal with when it comes to security,” the source said, adding that it was very difficult to prove that Shawkan was a photojournalist in the first place.

Shawkan used to upload his work to Corbis.com, a database for photojournalists to sell their work online. His profile showed a portfolio of events dating back to 2012.

The syndicate source also added that in many cases, detained journalists face charges that have nothing to do with journalism, making their situation even harder if they are not employed directly with news organizations.

“How can I guarantee that the detained person is a journalist not a normal citizen who was captured by police while holding a camera? We constantly face the challenge of proving the freelance journalist’s relationship to journalism,” the source explained.

Journalist Abu Bakr Khallaf, along with a group of other journalists, tried to initiate a potential alternative for journalists like Shawkan, attempting to form the “Syndicate of Online Media Workers.”

Khallaf believes that the membership requirements of the Journalists Syndicate are too difficult to meet, while the current crackdown on media freedoms makes it dangerous for journalists to operate without a proper level of protection.

“The worst nightmare for a journalist is to be caught with a camera without having a syndicate membership card and without an organization that can offer protection. Our syndicate is an attempt to find an alternative,” Khalled explained.

With the humble efforts to release his brother, Mohamed says that as time passes, “Shawkan is growing hopeless.” 

Mai Shams El-Din 

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