While international attention has focused on the ongoing retrial of Al Jazeera television journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, local Egyptian reporters based in Cairo paint a picture of press freedom that's as bleak as it's ever been. With Thursday's adjournment of the Al Jazeera journalists' retrial, the two remain in a legal limbo. But there's nothing murky about the state of press freedom in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's Egypt.
"I've never felt as hopeless and frustrated as I do now," Shahira Amin told VICE News, sitting at a café in central Cairo recently. Amin was a senior anchor and deputy head of state-owned Nile TV but resigned in early 2011 to protest what she saw as her channel's biased coverage of the January 25 revolution that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. A determined journalist who spoke warmly of her children and grandchildren, she described this as the bleakest period of a media career that began as a teenager.
Intimidation and arrests, she said, have now forced all but a tiny minority of independent news outlets into peddling the state line. In a flash of despair, she added, she'd considered buying a one-way ticket out of Egypt and giving up her vocation. "I don't want to lose hope," Amin explained. "But it's the worst I've felt in my lifetime."
Other old hands tell similar stories. Baher Mohamed's father Hazem, who himself had a long media career, described the current climate as "diseased," with state control banishing the hope that emerged after the revolution and confining Egyptian outlets to promoting government and business interests. "Now I can say we have no local media," he told VICE News in the garden of their family home on the outskirts of Cairo. "They are mouthpieces."
The international press occasionally mentions cases of foreign journalists who have been attacked by suspicious mobs at protests or the many who have been detained by security forces — in the case of one Le Monde journalist, just for talking politics in a cafe.
As usual, however, it is local journalists who suffer the worst treatment. Nine are still behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). And despite government promises to release journalists and political prisoners ahead of a large economic summit held last week and designed to woo international investors, there has been little progress, Sherif Mansour, who heads CPJ's Middle East and North Africa operations, told VICE News.
'It's very serious that journalists have been forced to practice self censorship because the fear has returned. … The fear that almost dissipated after the revolution has been reinstated.'
Fahmy and Mohamed are at least able to return to their homes while legal proceedings continue. Others are behind bars without even a chance to make their case in court. Photographer Mahmoud Abou Zied, also known as Shawkan, has now spent more than 740 days in detention without the benefit of any normal judicial procedures. The 28-year-old photographer was arrested along with a French and an American journalist while covering the August 2013 dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya protest camp — a sit-in staged by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi — that killed hundreds. He was on assignment for online photo agency Demotix at the time, but his work had previously been published in TIME and Die Zeit as well as a number of local outlets.
The Western journalists were released quickly, but Zied was transferred to a police station, then Abu Zaabal prison and finally to the Tora prison complex, where he has remained since. His detention is renewed every 45 days and legal appeals along with medical reports of his deteriorating health are ignored, says his family.
The Al Jazeera trio were jailed in Tora, but Zied is held in far worse conditions. He shares a 10x13 foot cell with 12 others for at least 22 hours a day, and his family is banned from even supplying him with books or other means of distraction, even a paper and pen.
He's suffering as a result, both mentally and physically, his brother Mohamed told VICE News. "It has affected his psychological side in a major way and his heath as well," he said despairingly in a central Cairo cafe. "He is in an intensive depression, sometimes partly on hunger strike, and it has affected his health and made him throw up every day."
Zied had been a keen photographer since he was a teenager and was always positive and energetic, Mohamed Zied said. That has now changed. "Before the arrest my brother was smiley, he'd make jokes with everyone. Nowadays, especially these days, he doesn't talk too much, he's always distracted, feels headaches and pains in his stomach, he's dizzy all the time…. He's lost hope."
This unending renewal of detention was initially illegal under the constitution Egyptians voted into law last January. But the CPJ's Mansour said it was then amended to help government ministries continue their crackdown on dissidents, in particular Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
There has been little outcry. Zied is an Egyptian and a freelancer; consequently, his case didn't attract many high-profile backers. Demotix sent a letter saying it had requested him to cover the sit-in, but there has been little in the way of campaigning other than from media advocacy groups such Rory Peck Trust, which supports freelance news-gatherers, and the CPJ.
Mohamed Zied is no revolutionary. He's an archaeologist by trade, who when asked if he was ever politically active, answered "no" with a slight smile and explained that it was never even an interest. But the sense of injustice at his brother's treatment has made him doubt his homeland. "A big country should be an example to lead the others in the field of freedom of opinion," he said. Instead, he added, Egypt has done the opposite and in a way that makes it appear to value its own citizens less than foreigners.
The sense of injustice is one keenly felt by Baher Mohamed's family too. In the days before he was released on bail, his wife Jihane and his father told VICE News of their anger at these perceived double standards.
"Now Peter [Greste] will have no punishment but receive presents, it's known to the whole world," she said, referring to the third detained Al Jazeera journalist, who's now back in his native Australia. She spoke with VICE News in their family home after her children — three sons and a young daughter born while Baher was in prison — had been put to bed. "It's favoring all other nationalities over Egyptians. That's what has happened already. We should take care of Egyptians over others, but instead we did this with our own hands."
Mansour said that a CPJ delegation was recently permitted to meet with government officials and at least obtain "something of a promise" of a further invitation and of access for its staff to some of the jailed journalists. But he said that otherwise, there has been a major pushback against CPJ attempts to look at individual cases, especially those of media workers affiliated or sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood; CPJ was informed those cases were not up for discussion.
The Egyptian media crisis extends far beyond jailings. Freedom of expression is being stifled in other ways too, Mansour said. A number of shows have been cancelled by networks, perhaps the most high profile being satirist Bassem Youssef's, which was terminated in September 2013 by the satellite television channel CBC for mocking supporters of Egypt's government. Youssef, who is widely known as "the Egyptian Jon Stewart" for the American comedian he aimed to emulate, was seen as something of a national indicator of free speech.
Meanwhile, a recent issue of normally pro-government private newspaper Al-Watan was confiscated because of an investigative report suggesting that some state institutions, including the presidency and interior ministry, did not pay tax, according to local reports. The investigation was replaced by a piece on last weekend's glitzy economic summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.
On an individual level, journalists are targeted with threats and smear campaigns. Amin rejoined Nile TV during a post-revolutionary period that she describes as "a very short moment of freedom of expression." Now, she said, things are very different and there are strict rules about topics she and her guests can discuss. Criticism of the military or Sisi, she added, is absolutely not allowed. "It's one narrative, the official state narrative," she said. "Anyone who strays from that is a traitor."
Amin is an experienced journalist; she's worked for CNN's Inside Africa for a number of years, but she said her refusal to stick to the official line means she's ostracized at work and accused of being a foreign agent seeking to destabilize Egypt. Her show is made a day early and then given to the channel's deputy director to be censored.
Most of her colleagues, she said, won't talk to her. She described a recent incident where an irate woman stopped her in the corridor and shouted at her. "She said, 'There goes a spy, she's a traitor… you get foreign money to tarnish Egypt's image.'"
But Amin keeps the job — partly, she said, because it offers a level of protection against state pressure, and partly because she has an insider's perspective on censorship. She believes her employers keep her around because her international reputation as a credible journalist means she is offered exclusive interviews.
Amin is accustomed to threats. Under the Mubarak regime, she would get calls from state security asking why she was trying to sully Egypt's image by reporting on subjects such as female genital mutilation, sectarian issues, or the time security forces killed more than 20 Sudanese refugees staging a peaceful sit-in at a public park.
The threats have continued under Sisi, she said. During the January 2014 constitution referendum, she received Twitter messages saying that if she didn't disguise herself, she'd be attacked by a mob. The day before she spoke with VICE News, she said she received a call from a number that was all zeros, which she assumed to be state-linked. An anonymous voice said, "We don't know what to do with you… Do you want us to go to the days of [brutal former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein where activists are gunned down in the street?"
Youssef ended a subsequent version of his show on satellite channel MBC-Masr in June 2014 because he felt satire was no longer safe. "I'm tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family," he told reporters at the time.
Perhaps even more common than direct threats, however, is for independent journalists to be accused of association with the Muslim Brotherhood or anti-Egyptian sentiment in pro-government media. The repercussions can be serious: a damaged reputation or firing. Worse, if charges are brought, they could be tried in a military court, assets frozen and placed on a travel ban list.
The pressure is taking its toll on journalists, and Amin said her allies — mostly Egyptian friends working for foreign media — are dwindling as they see colleagues arrested, jailed, smeared, or fired from jobs. "It's very serious that journalists have been forced to practice self censorship because the fear has returned," she added. "The fear that almost dissipated after the revolution has been reinstated."
Amin said she suspects some members of the press made deals with the current administration. She described being approached by an embassy official in November 2012 who told her that even though Morsi had recently been elected, a new president was being groomed and would be in power within months. The official offered her a position or money to "join the right side", she claimed.
One of a series of audio recordings leaked in the past months — which implicate Sisi and his staff in a series of constitutional abuses — appears to suggest his office contacted independent TV talk-show hosts, referred to as "our people in the media," and instructed them what to say on air.
Khaled Al-Balshy, a board member of Egypt's Journalist Syndicate with a long history of confronting authorities, also described self-censorship. "The problem with this control is that a lot of journalists and media people took it as voluntary choice," he told VICE News. "Others choose to withdraw. I can accept their choice, but I think if they had stayed with us [the independent press] we could have made something better."
In October 2014, a group of Egyptian newspaper editors even released a declaration in which they promised to limit reports that showed state institutions in a bad light.
The state does not only apply pressure to journalists directly, Balshy said. A number of papers he has been involved in running have been closed down since the Mubarak era, but none were as a result of official state orders. Instead, the decision came from media owners, who are usually either concerned about offending government figures or have been directly pressured by them, he said. "It's always a 'security' or 'financial' problem that causes an issue to be blocked in the printers, but behind it you will find a businessman trying to protect his capital…. The state controls the media through the businessmen. The heads of the media system are being carefully chosen by government to allow them to apply pressure when they want to."
The result is that many privately-owned outlets are especially pro-government, in some cases defending abuses of power, especially by the security forces, when even state media will not.
The situation is undoubtably grim, but not beyond hope. Amin said there's a new generation of young Egyptian writers, who didn't grow up with repression and learning to self-censor as a matter of course, that are keen to practice good journalism. However, they are a small minority and often forced to resort to social media or blogs in order to publish their work. Even the English language and online version of state-owned Ahram Weekly, however, is "full of revolutionaries," she said. There are a few small outlets too, such as Mada Masr, that are attempting to push and provide an independent voice in Arabic and English without government censorship. More than 300 journalists also signed a counter letter rejecting the promise of favorable government coverage made by their editors.
Balshy, meanwhile, met with VICE News while setting up his latest venture, an independent online outlet. He listed all of the previous publications he's been involved with and described their demise, but swore that because he has taken personal control and is less beholden to pro-government business interests, it won't happen again. "Now I have this," he said, gesturing around his new offices defiantly. "And I won't let anyone shut it down."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck
Main photo: A protester rallies in support of Al Jazeera journalists Abdullah al-Shami and Mohammed Sultan, who were detained by Egyptian authorities, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, June 1, 2014. Image via Reuters.