Washington - Egyptian authorities in recent weeks have released several journalists, including Mohamed Salah and Abdo Fayed among others. Salah had been detained without trial since November 2019, while Fayed was jailed for nearly two years.
But at least 20 other journalists are still being held by the Egyptian government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Egypt is considered to be one of the world's foremost jailers of journalists. In the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, released by the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on May 3, Egypt ranked 168th out of 180 countries and territories rated.
The hostile environment for independent reporting in Egypt follows a global decline in press freedom, as indicated by RSF's latest ratings. In Egypt, the situation has worsened under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013.
To discuss how the Egyptian government uses prolonged pre-trial detentions to silence independent journalists and critical voices, VOA interviewed Sherif Mansour, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa coordinator. The following text is edited for length and clarity.
VOA: Several journalists have been released from prison by the Egyptian government. How do you assess this development?
Mansour: We have certainly seen more releases than arrests since last year in Egypt. But there are still high-profile cases that the government has used for over 10 years to send a message and build a comprehensive oppression machine. There are dozens of journalists in abusive pretrial detention, some for two years and others for even more than that, like the case of journalist Alaa Abdelfettah. In many ways this has been the point for the government; using pretrial detention and terrorism-related charges not only to keep people from doing their job, but also use them as an example for others so that they do not criticize the government or write independently about what is happening in the country.
VOA: Could the recent releases of journalists be seen as a sign of improvement for press freedom in Egypt?
Mansour: The Egyptian government has been sensitive to criticism of aid conditionality, which is essentially a decision by the [U.S. President Joe] Biden administration to make part of U.S. military aid to Cairo conditional upon improvement its human rights record.
Additionally, the Biden administration has not given el-Sissi a Washington reception, or even an in-person meeting. And that is not unique to Washington; other Western capitals have made resolutions about this. The U.N. has spoken out specifically about these abusive detentions, even giving an award to someone like Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan. The CPJ also gave him an award.
This is a photojournalist who was held and was sentenced to death, but then released under another abusive condition, which he still faces. Every day at 6 p.m., he must go and spend the night in the police station. Even after spending five years in custody, he still has to spend every night in custody.
So, I believe it is this pressure from the international community that forces the Egyptian government to take some steps.
VOA: But targeting critical voices remains widespread in Egypt. What are some of the tactics that authorities use to go after critical journalists?
Mansour: The government has made sure that there are other ways to go after journalists, including pressuring them into self-censorship and threatening their families.
Many journalists have moved into exile since 2013. In terms of imprisonment, the government has established vague terrorism charges and extended the pretrial detention to two years. But in practice, even those laws meant nothing, because for many people after two years, the government would extend their pretrial detention again under a new case number but with the same charges, so they would hold them outside of the law.
They own the book, so they design laws in any way they wish to. For example, in the case of Alaa Abdelfettah, he has been in and out of jail for the last 10 years. Sometimes he would be found guilty for one case, and other times he would be taken after serving time in prison and then he would be going into the nightly detention routine. In many ways, the government is just trying to make sure that they make an example out of you for others not to cross the line. This is basically how censorship in Egypt happens.