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Egypt marks World Press Freedom Day following press syndicate attack

Journalists and eyewitnesses say dozens of security officers stormed the syndicate while hundreds more barricaded the entire area

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Two days before World Press Freedom Day, Egyptian security forces broke into the Press Syndicate and arrested two journalists who had staged a sit-in there a day earlier in protest at police raids on their houses. Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Saqqa are charged with inciting violence, destabilizing national security and protesting without permission.

Journalists and eyewitnesses say dozens of security officers stormed the syndicate while hundreds more barricaded the entire area. However, the Interior Ministry says only eight officers were involved in the arrests, and Badr and Saqqa turned themselves in immediately. The incident has shocked intellectuals, media professionals and rights activists, raising concerns about the future of press freedom in Egypt.

“A few hours before World Press Freedom Day, all Egyptians were shocked to see a barbaric assault on journalists and journalism as security forces stormed the Press Syndicate,” said the syndicate. “This attack violated the constitution, the law, and all national and international rules.”

The syndicate said the interior minister should resign, and urged local, regional and international organizations that work on press freedom to make the incident the headline of statements they issue on World Press Freedom Day.

Journalist and TV anchor Wael al-Ibrashi offered his “condolences to all journalists” on his daily show on Dream TV. Even if arrest warrants are issued for journalists, Ibrashi said security forces should have notified the Press Syndicate to discuss different means of dealing with the situation.

Syndicate Chairman Yehia Qalash said the matter did not stop at storming the syndicate. “Security forces are besieging the entire area surrounding the syndicate, and restricting entry to the syndicate of both journalists and supporters of the sit-in staged following the arrests,” he said. “There are others in civilian clothes who keep verbally harassing everyone who attempts to enter the syndicate under the nose of security forces.”

Qalash accused the Interior Ministry of issuing false statements in order not to admit the mistake it had made. The ministry “never learns from its previous mistakes, and is still acting as an untouchable entity,” he said.

Law

Journalist Abdullah al-Sinnawi, who said the incident was the first of its kind in the syndicate’s 75 years, said the arrest was illegal and refuted claims that arrest warrants gave security forces the right to storm it.

“According to Article 70 of the Press Syndicate law, even if final court rulings were issued against the wanted journalists, there has to be a warrant from Public Prosecution and the arrest cannot take place without the presence of the syndicate chairman,” he said. Sinnawi accused security forces of interfering in politics by targeting professions that deal with public affairs, such as journalism.

Denying freedoms

“What happened was not an attack on particular journalists, but an insult to the dignity of the profession of journalism.” Sinnawi denied that the syndicate was taking advantage of the attack to slam the government. “This is about the sacredness of freedom of thought and expression, and does not in any way involve an attempt at politicizing the syndicate.”

Former Culture Minister Gaber Asfour said the syndicate was not only in charge of protecting journalists, but was a symbol of freedom of expression in general. “The Press Syndicate enjoys symbolic immunity, and that is why storming it is an unforgivable mistake,” he said.

Asfour added that state officials were very good at creating crises that increase public tensions and tarnish Egypt’s image. “Now Egypt looks like it is back to being a police state, and the entire world will start talking about human rights violations in Egypt.”

Sisi

In response to calls for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to intervene, as well as questions about the absence of any presidential statements on the matter, professor of mass communication Mahmoud Khalil said the Interior Ministry was part of the executive power, which is headed by the president, meaning that the ministry and presidency cannot be treated as separate entities.

“That is why the dismissal of the interior minister is unlikely, since he only acts upon orders from the presidency and is not a decision-maker himself,” he said. Khalil added that the state, including the presidency and Interior Ministry, always think of the press as inciting rebellion against official decisions. “The state, in fact, wants the press to condone its policies and mobilize people in this direction.”

Yasser Rizq, chairman of Akhbar al-Youm Foundation, had a different view: “I am sure that the president did not know in advance about the incident, and is not happy about it at all now.” Rizq accused the Interior Ministry of tarnishing Sisi’s image by acting unilaterally.

Blame

Official Interior Ministry spokesperson Abu Bakr Abdel Karim said the security forces only headed to the Press Syndicate after not finding Badr or Saqqa in their houses, and knowing that they were hiding at the syndicate. “They were specifically hiding there in order to instigate a confrontation between the syndicate and the ministry,” he said.

Abdel Karim said the ministry was not in a position to start negotiations with the syndicate chairman over the two journalists. “They are fugitives and they had to be arrested, otherwise the police will be breaking the law.” Abdel Karim blamed the syndicate for sheltering fugitives in the first place. “The syndicate should have reported to the police that the two journalists were there. Plus, why would the syndicate allow fugitives to hide in it?”