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In Egypt, a deplorable press freedom climate

Police clash with protesters and journalists during a Cairo rally last month. (AP)

Judging by what’s transpired in recent weeks, press freedom in Egypt is in a deplorable state. To hear that Egyptian police abused and illegally detained peaceful protestors who took to the streets on April 6 is par for the course. To read that police and plainclothes thugs also beat and detained journalists, confiscating and destroying video footage and notes, is revolting but, unfortunately, quite predictable. But to learn that elements of the state security apparatus may also have posed as journalists to monitor civil society and opposition activists marks a new low for the Egyptian state.

A recent article in the independent daily Al-Dustour quotes Buthayna Kamel, a journalist and opposition activist, after she had a recent encounter with someone she’s convinced was an imposter. Kamel says that a man came up to her during a demonstration and introduced himself as a journalist for the government-owned daily Al-Akhbar and asked her numerous questions that struck her as unrelated to journalism, ones that instead focused on logistic and security concerns. “When I became suspicious, he got nervous and it became clear to me that he was from state security,” Kamel told Al-Dustour.

Kamel’s story is consistent with others that have been relayed to CPJ. Gamal Eid, a rights lawyer and executive director of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said he has seen many such incidents. “Usually they call and pretend to be journalists, but occasionally they appear in person,” Eid told CPJ. “The last such incident was eight or nine months ago, when a man posing as a journalist came to my office asking questions that were in no way related to journalism.”

This behavior would be outrageous in any country under any circumstance, but the particulars of the Egyptian situation make it doubly alarming. Here’s why:

The Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate’s membership rules are highly restrictive, leaving hundreds—if not thousands—of legitimate journalists in Egypt without official government recognition of their professional status. When those “unrecognized” journalists write stories that offend powerful political or business figures—which they inevitably do—they are frequently sued for impersonating a journalist. The “crime” carries a prison sentence of up to three years, although in practice those found guilty are usually heavily fined.

So, in Egypt, fake journalists operate unhindered while legitimate reporters are sued for impersonating a journalist.

One is left to wonder why the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate does not take a stand against these imposters who infiltrate demonstrations and political meetings, all the while sullying the reputation of all journalists. Perhaps the syndicate’s leaders—in particular its chief, Makram Mohamed Ahmad—are too busy presenting awards to enemies of the press to attend to the impersonation of journalists back home. Let me explain.

Ahmad is also the secretary-general of the Federation of Arab Journalists, which gave its annual award last week to none other than Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for “defending press freedom in the Arab world.”

Take even the most cursory look at Ben Ali’s press record in just the past year: His government instigated the overthrow of the democratically elected board of the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists; initiated a smear campaign against Al-Jazeera for its critical coverage of Tunisian policies; engaged in widespread censorship and violations of basic rights of journalists in the run-up to elections in October; persisted in politically motivated score-settling with critical journalists; imprisoned journalists Taoufik Ben Brik, Fahem Boukadous, and Zuhair Makhlouf under manufactured or politicized evidence, at times abusing them; routinely confiscated local and international publications perceived as independent or critical; and restricted the movement of journalists and their sources.

Ahmad described Ben Ali as “a friend to Arab journalists and a supporter of media across the world and a leader who encourages and endorses opinion and freedom and democracy and knows how to win hearts with his noble gestures with regard to all the cases that are important to journalists.”

To confer a press freedom award upon a five-term president who has never missed an opportunity to undermine independent journalism reflects audacious indifference to the constituency and principles that the Federation of Arab Journalists claims to represent. It’s little wonder that the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate has failed to take a stand against security agents impersonating journalists.

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