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For journalists, freedom from jail is a qualified liberty

The only country with more journalists in jail than Egypt is China, and it has raced to this position at a breathtaking pace.

The Committee to Protect Journalists puts the number of jailed journalists in Egypt at 23, almost double what the organization recorded at the same time last year. This is lower than numbers from the Arab Network for Human Rights Information and the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate. The discrepancy is due to a difference in criteria — CPJ counts only those who it can prove have been targeted by governments for their journalistic work.

The censoring armory that the government uses includes office raids, verbal and physical threats, and pulled advertising.

One news network, Yaqeen, was shut down after security forces raided its offices and arrested its director, Yehia Khalaf, in July 2015. The offices of the Mada Foundation for Media Development (not to be confused with this outlet) remain shuttered and the doorway crisscrossed with red tape, after a raid in October in which their director, Hisham Gaafar, was arrested.

The director of Yaqeen was released after a few weeks, and the status of charges against him remain unclear. Some press freedom advocates describe the status of his case and others like it as “desk drawer” cases: the case file is ready to be used to bring someone back into custody at any moment.

Freedom from jail is a qualified liberty.

Like anyone else, journalists want to protect their ability to keep working and shield their loved ones from the threats they face, as well as protect their sources. There are threats that are never documented, whispered in the midst of the clamor of coffee shops, texted through encrypted chats. Some of them are reported on the condition of anonymity, for the translucent protection it can provide.

Female journalists face additional threats. One woman writer noticed a man lurking outside her house for days, eventually slipping written threats to her underneath her door. Another woman journalist was pushed by a man against a wall near her house, and verbally threatened with sexual assault.

Many journalists have left the country, in an exile either forced on them or self-imposed, although the difference is perhaps artificial.

The list of imprisoned journalists includes freelance photographers, correspondents for Islamist outlets that have been run out of the country, as well as secular bloggers. The majority faced charges of working with the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the state. Even activists known to have been anti-Brotherhood have faced these charges, which have been used indiscriminately since the government banned the group in 2013, and shut down Islamist media outlets.

The government counts on scant public support for those who worked for Islamist outlets, have a religious appearance, or have personal or professional contacts with the Brotherhood or Islamist groups. Once arrested, these journalists sometimes find out they are being tried in mass court cases only after they have been sentenced.

The presidency has told the press on several occasions that their first duty is toward public morale. “Don’t let people lose hope,” President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said to the media in November, after criticizing coverage of the floods in Alexandria and other cities. Be our weapon in the fight against terror, or be our enemy, seems to be the message. Days after Sisi’s address, state television presenter Azza al-Hennawy was suspended after calling for government accountability in relation to the floods.

A number of newspaper editors publicly absconded their right to criticize and question the authorities and pledged, instead, to “stop publishing statements that would undermine state institutions.” Hundreds of journalists objected to the statement.

The Internet has predictably remained a freer space. But a draft media law threatens to bring unprecedented restriction to digital media outlets, including a condition that news websites receive government permits.

The battle over press freedom is really about who gets to decide what is a matter of public interest. The state does not think issues of security should be reported or discussed on the public record by anyone other than its spokespeople. The sobering subtext is: if officials do not want regular civilians to discuss security issues, then whose security is it that matters? Whose lives and livelihoods are being considered in those closed rooms? Journalists have the right to ask these questions.

At least three journalists are in jail for reporting on Sinai. There, security forces are waging a war on militias amid a media blackout and a counterterrorism law that makes the government’s narrative of the conflict the only one permitted. This means the government can call each of the several hundred people it says died in military operations there “extremists,” and expect that to be the end of the story.

No wonder, then, that as the saga of the Russian plane crash unfolded, Egypt’s mainstream media sufficed with mirroring the government’s response to the tragedy. It matched the government’s long periods of silence, and simply carried official statements when they were issued.

One wonders what the newspapers must seem like to those journalists in jail, when they are allowed to read them.

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Yasmin El-Rifae