EGYPT: Dangers for women activists on the rise as press freedoms shrink dramatically

Lys Anzia – WNN Breaking commentary

Prostest poster during January revolution in Egypt
A protest rally poster makes a comment about freedom of the internet and social media during the January revolution in Cairo 2011. Image: Essam Sharaf

(WNN) Cairo, EGYPT, NORTHERN AFRICA: “We formed a cordon for the first time ever, and for the first time ever the cordon had both men and women in it,” said the then 17-year-old Egyptian activist Ms. Sanaa Seif in 2011 during an interview she made about Egypt’s democracy movement that appeared on Youtube in 2011. Now Sanaa, at the age of 20, has been arrested and placed in a Cairo jail since June 21. Along with Sanaa’s arrest Ms. Yara Sallam, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was arrested at the same time.

Egyptian security officials told both women that they were arrested for ‘taking part in or being near a protest area’. Like Yara, Sanaa has remained strongly on the radar screen of Egypt’s state-run military police system for the past few years.

It’s no accident. Both Saana and Yara have been on the ‘watch list’ because of their associations. Sanaa is the sister of another prisoner of conscience who is also incarcerated, her brother and Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah.

28-year-old Yara is a human rights attorney who has a passion for revealing injustice. In the past she has offered her legal services gratis numerous times for women’s rights defenders inside Egypt. She is also someone who “follows her feelings,” says her close friends.

Perhaps Sanaa is used to being in danger, as she does not seem to be afraid. Being born into a family that has fought against human rights abuse in Egypt might make this courage more easy for her. But it doesn’t mean that her experiences are easy ones.

Both women activists, like journalists and bloggers in Egypt, have been feeling the increased pressure of military surveillance throughout the region.

In early June this year, Egypt’s Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim described in a leaked secret document an expanded online surveillance program in Egypt that is set to include a comprehensive government sponsored program in the tracking of social media. This isn’t a surprise to those who have chosen to speak out about the crumbling lack of democracy and injustice inside the region. The current military run government has been placing tighter restrictions on anyone who might be considered ‘an enemy of the regime’, say activists.

“I am nervous as I write this. I am in my cold prison cell after my first official exercise session – four glorious hours in the grass yard behind our block and I don’t want that right to be snatched away,” said Al Jazeera news’ award-winning Australian war correspondent Peter Greste in a late January 2014 letter from a small crowded cell room in Cairo’s Tora prison where he has been held for five plus months with Al Jazeera’s Canadian-Egyptian journalist and news bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian media producer Baher Mohamed.

When he wrote his letter Greste had only been incarcerated at that point with his colleagues for less than one month. He may have thought in that small cell room his fate was already decided, but he didn’t know for sure then that his journey in jail would last much longer.

Being threatened and attacked, as well as arrested, has also been part of similar experiences for numerous other journalists in Egypt, including a freelance correspondent in Cairo who has worked on assignment in the past for WNN – Women News Network. But the long stay in a very small cell room for Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed has undoubtedly been grueling.

Now Greste, and his journalistic colleagues, have received their final sentence from a jaded Cairo courtroom. The charge in the guilty conviction that brought no evidentiary materials to the court appears calculated and malevolent.

“Aiding the Muslim Brotherhood” and spreading “false news,” was the sentence that included seven to ten years in prison for members of the Al Jazeera news team.

“I am particularly concerned about the role of the judicial system in this clampdown,” said UN Human Rights Chief Ms. Navi Pillay, in her recent public statement from the United Nations Geneva.

It’s no wonder while the world watches, tourist visits to the pyramids have decreased dramatically as government campaigns of arrests, intimidation and harsh treatment for those who document injustice in the region happen regularly. In what seems to be a carefully choreographed plan by Egypt’s government, part of the rising crackdown on freedom of speech, expression and the press is intensifying now in hopes of succeeding in its work to silence the voices of justice.

“Harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists, including bloggers, as well as violent attacks by unidentified assailants, have become commonplace,” continued Pillay in her UN statement made on response to the inhuman treatment of the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt.

“Media employees trying to carry out their work in Egypt are now confronted by an extremely difficult and dangerous environment. They should be protected not prosecuted,” she added.

The danger has been rising since former President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office, says a majority of journalists and international media teams, including the CPJ – Committee for the Protection of Journalists.

So far since 1992 eight journalists have been killed while reporting on-the-ground in Eqypt. But the deaths from January 2014 to today show a dramatic rise in violence against the press as six of those killed since 1992 have been killed the last year alone, CPJ outlines.

“It is not a crime to carry a camera, or to try to report various points of views about events,” says Pillay. “It is not a crime to criticize the authorities, or to interview people who hold unpopular views.  Journalists and civil society members should not be arrested, prosecuted, beaten up or sacked for reporting on sensitive issues. They should not be shot for trying to report or film things we, the public, have a right to know are happening.”

But transparency in Egypt these days is very hard, if not impossible, to find.

With court procedures that are considered by UN experts to be “rife with procedural irregularities and in breach of international human rights law,” other human rights agencies have documented a great lack of judicial  accountability in the system of law currently in place inside Egypt. Irregularities in court trial procedures is a case in point, outlines human rights organization Amnesty International.

During the recent court proceedings for the arrested news team with Al Jazeera, a trial observer for Amnesty International recorded legal inconsistencies and breaks in numerous courtroom sessions.

It’s not a surprise to the news media, or to most women human rights activists living inside or outside Egypt, that accusations made by high ranking Egyptian officials are now labeling speaking or reporting on injustice in any form as a ‘terrorist act’.

“In 12 court sessions, the prosecution failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence linking the journalists to a terrorism organization or proving they had ‘falsified’ news footage,” outlined Amnesty International.

So far this year in 2014 is a far cry from the days of democracy rallies in downtown Cairo that began on its first day with excitement, hope and peaceful demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

“I’ll never forget the way that soldier looked,” said Sanaa Seif describing a line of soldiers that created a wall against the protesters during one of the January 2011 rallies she participated in.

“He wouldn’t look at me. He was looking away deliberately trying to avoid eye-contact with me – and he was crying. At some point he said something, but I couldn’t hear what it was and he said ‘go away!’ I heard him say ‘go away!’,” she continued.

“Then all of a sudden they all started shooting at the same time,” outlined Sanaa during her eye-witness account on Youtube.


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