Egypt must ‘hit reset button’ on press freedom
IPI calls on new president to uphold constitutional protections for media
VIENNA, May 26, 2014 – Egypt’s new president should hit the reset button on press freedom by immediately dropping charges against 16 journalists accused of sedition, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military commander who helped engineer last year’s putsch against a democratically elected government, faces only token opposition in this week’s election and seems destined to become the country’s next leader. Al-Sisi served as defence minister in the interim government until he stepped down on March 26 to run for president.
Al-Sisi has sent mixed messages during his campaign, saying he supported freedoms but that they should “not lead to chaos that would harm the state”, according to news reports. Voting takes place today and tomorrow.
“It is imperative for Egypt that the next president move immediately to free journalists who have been unjustly jailed, in some cases for months without a trial, and to announce that he will uphold the rights of press freedom and unfettered access to information guaranteed under the Constitution,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said. “Candidate al-Sisi has talked about the need for a stable, secure Egypt and that is a goal we share. Robust and independent media that reflect diverse views can help achieve that goal.”
Bethel McKenzie also urged the new president to curb police intimidation of media workers, who have endured attacks from street mobs and security agents while covering demonstrations that followed the July 3, 2013 coup.
At least eight journalists have died on the job and dozens of others have been wounded since then. The most recent death occurred on March 28 when Mayada Ashraf, a 22-year-old journalist for the independent El-Dostour newspaper, was shot while reporting on clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in the Cairo suburb of Ain Shams.
Sixteen Egyptian and foreign journalists are being held on terrorism-related charges. These include three foreign staffers of the Al Jazeera television network - Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed - who were arrested on Dec. 30, 2013 for allegedly supporting terrorists. Abdullah Elshamy, an Egyptian working for Al Jazeera who was arrested and jailed on Aug. 14, 2013, is in grave health because of a hunger strike he began in January to protest his detention.
IPI issued a report in February calling on the interim government and future leaders to free journalists and to improve safety for media workers. The “Journalists under siege” report was based on a five-day emergency visit to Egypt by an IPI delegation. The trip began on Jan. 25, three years to the day after the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, and was prompted by concerns that journalists were becoming an unacceptable target – if not outright scapegoats – for the tumultuous politics that have engulfed the country in the past three years.
Taking into account the approval of a new Constitution in January, the report urged the Egyptian government to “state publicly that it will abide by the letter and spirit of the new [January 2014] Constitution – including Articles 70, 71 and 72 that provide guarantees of press freedom, freedom of publication and the independence of the news media…”
The report also urged Egypt’s president to:
- Appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate reports that police have beaten detained journalists, violated their rights of access to legal counsel and illegally confiscated and/or destroyed media equipment.
- Launch training for police and armed forces personnel to recognise accredited journalists as neutral non-combatants.
“By freeing the jailed journalists and taking steps to improve the safety and security of all media workers, the new leadership in Egypt could go a long way in ensuring that the public has independent sources of information during what will be another new era for the country,” Bethel McKenzie said. “We urge the president to act immediately, to ensure media safety and pluralism from the outset of the new administration.”
>> For more information, contact Timothy Spence at +43 (1) 512 90 11 or by e-mail tspence[@]freemedia.at