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Egypt regime ‘at war’ with the press: media union

May 3, 2016

Egypt’s journalists’ union on Tuesday denounced what it called a decline in press freedoms and accused the regime of being “at war” with the profession after two reporters were arrested.

Human rights activists accuse President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of running an ultra-authoritarian regime that has violently suppressed all opposition since toppling Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

On Sunday, police sparked media and opposition outrage by storming the journalists’ union building in an unprecedented raid and arresting two reporters.

A day later, the authorities ordered the detention for 15 days of Amr Badr and Mahmud el-Sakka on allegations of incitement to protest.

The prosecutor said the pair would be held as part of an investigation which also includes allegations they had called for a “coup”.

Badr heads the website Babawet Yanayer which is opposed to Sisi.

Sakka works for the same organisation whose Arabic name means January Gate in a nod to the January 2011 uprising that forced longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak to stand down.

“This year we mark World Press Freedom Day with Egypt down in all the international rankings,” union chief Yahiya Kallash told a press conference ahead of a union general meeting due on Wednesday.

“Instead of seeing the government take concrete measures to overcome this situation, we are surprised to see it escalating the war against journalism and journalists,” he said.

Kallash denounced “unprecedented searches of the offices of information providers” and the “practice of censorship before publication”.

He said “29 journalists are currently behind bars, some of whom have been in custody for nearly three years”.

– ‘Interior ministry thugs!’ –

The union chief addressed an often rowdy press conference of some 200 journalists during which he was interrupted by chants against the police who controlled access to the building.

“Interior ministry thugs!” they chanted.

In a statement late Tuesday, the attorney general’s office announced a blackout on the case of the two journalists to avoid “influencing the enquiry” since it had security implications.

“The investigation into the accused shows that they entered into an agreement with the union chief that they take refuge in the union headquarters, and that he promised to mediate with the authorities to overturn the decision to arrest them,” it said.

“If that is true, this would constitute a crime under the penal code.”

It added that allowing the pair to stage a sit-in at the union building in an effort to evade arrest “also constitutes a crime punishable under the law”.

The statement denied union charges that the raid on the headquarters did not follow legal procedures.

Abuses by the police were a catalyst for the 2011 popular uprising, but such practices have again become commonplace.

On Tuesday, social network users reacted with contempt to an email mistakenly sent out to the press by the police, containing an internal circular on “media management” of the crisis.

“We cannot turn back, as that would mean a mistake has been made,” it said, and called for “the use of security experts and retired police generals to expound the ministry’s view” in the media.

“We must work to obtain the support of public opinion… in conveying the idea that the union wants to be above the law, that its members do not want to be accountable.”

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.