The building on a busy street in Cairo, close to Saudi Arabia’s sparkling, oversized newly built embassy, has seen better days. Wires hang from its ceiling, its marble floors are chipped and trash is strewn across the dusty corridors. Affixed to the office door on the fourth floor is a photograph of the country’s beaming Field Marshal, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The disguise isn’t worth the effort now, judging by the four sinister men hanging around at the building’s entrance—their menace advertising they are with state security.
“I told most of the journalists to work from home—I expect a raid soon,” says Ali Asem, the 24-year-old editor of el-Masdr (The Source), one of the few independent Egyptian media outlets left that’s critical of Egypt’s army-led government. Fifteen journalists work at el-Masdr but they rely on assistance from another 100 citizen reporters to file videos, pictures or copy for social media distribution.
“We have journalists at the heart of events as they take place, live reporting,” says Ali. They specialize in covering anti-army street protests and official crackdowns. As a consequence, el-Masdr reporters have been beaten and jailed themselves. Four journalists from el-Masdr, which has 40,000 Twitter followers and 283,000 fans on Facebook, have been arrested in recent weeks. All were later released, one after enduring 39 days detention and repeated beatings. “When I told them I was a citizen journalist, they just beat me more,” says 19-year-old Fadhy Samir Zakher, who was arrested in December and released 10 days ago.
Despite an international outcry, there appear to be no signs that a military crackdown on the media is abating. And el-Masdr, which was founded just before the army-led uprising toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in June, is in the eye of the storm.
Last week, a judge declined to release on bail three journalists with al-Jazeera, who were seized in a raid at a Cairo hotel on December 29 while reporting for the Qatar-based network’s English news channel.
All three—Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, Australian reporter Peter Greste, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed—are accused along with 17 other foreign and Egyptian media workers of either being members of the Muslim Brotherhood or aiding the Islamist movement that has been outlawed and proscribed as a terrorist organization. Their trial has been adjourned to March 5. Another Al-Jazeera reporter, Abdullah el-Shamy, was jailed in August after being arrested at a protest, and is on hunger strike while awaiting the March trial.
Several of the defendants in the case are being tried in absentia, including Dutch journalist Rena Netjes and British reporters Dominic Kane and Sue Turton, both of al-Jazeera. Netjes, who appears to have come under suspicion because she visited the al-Jazeera crew at Cairo’s Marriott a few days before the raid, managed to flee Egypt after the intervention of Dutch embassy officials.
For Ali, the al-Jazeera arrests were not only aimed at the Doha-headquartered channel but also mounted to intimidate local media outlets that refuse to toe the army line. The message, he thinks, is: if we can treat big foreign media this way, what do you think we can do to you? “The arrests were made in order to squash what is left of the independent media, which only makes up about five percent of all media now, mainly youth networks. It is the State’s way of saying you have to be pro regime.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists Egypt is one of the top 10 worst countries for jailing journalists and the New York-based NGO considers the country the third most deadly for journalists to work in, coming behind Iraq and Syria. Five journalists were killed last year, and 45 others assaulted. Egyptian security forces raided more than a dozen news outlets in 2013. At least three journalists were tried and sentenced by military tribunals last year and handed out jail terms ranging from six months to a year.
In a scathing report this month, CPJ condemned both Morsi’s toppled administration and the military-backed government for their treatment of the media. “The deeply polarized Egyptian press was battered by an array of repressive tactics throughout 2013, from the legal and physical intimidation during the tenure of former President Mohamed Morsi to the widespread censorship by the military-backed government that replaced him,” read the report.
While no fan of the Brotherhood , Ali says Morsi’s rule and the army-led government can’t be compared when it comes to press freedom. “It was difficult when Morsi was in power but now it is very dangerous; there is so much more violence. Journalists are targeted. We don’t only work fearing injury. We fear we will be killed.”
Sitting in el-Masdr’s small fourth-floor office, sparsely furnished with broken chairs and dust-covered desktops, he says: “At the time when the Brotherhood was in power we were reporting and recording their violations. Other outlets used to feature our videos but now they don’t because they only feature videos that are against Morsi. What we are doing is exactly the same but this time we are covering the violations of the current security regime.”
Ali is a member of the liberal Al-Dostour Party. But he says at el-Masdr, “everyone is welcome as long as they are youth and with the 2011 revolution but aside from that their party affiliation is un-important, Islamist or liberal.”
How much longer el-Masdr will be able to soldier on remains uncertain. The noose on the media is tightening every day. On January 25, the third anniversary of the revolution that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the security forces cracked down especially hard on media covering anti-army protests and pro-Morsi demonstrations. At least five photojournalists were arrested, and two others were hospitalized with injuries.
Among those arrested was Kareem Al-Behairi, a journalist with El-Badil newspaper. He has been charged with inciting riots. But according to a statement from the Arab Network for Human Rights Information the journalist was seized despite showing his press accreditation. The statement alleges that Al-Behairi refused to be photographed with weapons and a Molotov cocktail and the officers then “beat him violently.”
Khaled Al-Balshy, the editor of Al-Badil newspaper, says that it was “obvious security forces were targeting journalists.”
Since then arrests of local reporters have followed, normally for filming protests, although they are accused either of being Muslim Brothers or spreading lies about the security forces or the country.
“Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views,” Human Rights Watch concluded in a recent report.
Dissent appears to mean not being pro-regime. And being loyal to the army-installed government apparently means not only not covering anti-government protests and the security forces breaking up of them but also not even talking with members of the now proscribed Muslim Brotherhood. The Al-Jazeera arrests have had a clear chilling effect with most foreign reporters so nervous of being seized they are avoiding having any contacts at all with the Brotherhood.
Likewise, filming on the street is being avoided by most foreign media outlets, either from fear of possible arrest or because government loyalists have a tendency of assaulting camera crews, accusing them of working for al-Jazeera.
So what drives Ali and his small team at el-Masdr and persuades them to court danger? “Our only motive is that we wan to portray the truth and we want to provide a journalism of conscience and we will report even when it goes against our own beliefs. We are committed to this.”