Is Egypt Cracking Down On Freedom Of Press?

Feb 18, 2014
Originally published on February 19, 2014 8:54 am

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now to a form of employment that has become increasingly dangerous in many places around the world. We hope you don't mind if we talk for a few minutes about our field - journalism. In Egypt, several Al Jazeera journalists are facing trial after weeks behind bars. They're accused of working with a terrorist group, among other things. In Iraq, there has been a spike in the number of journalists killed in recent months.

And in the U.S., reports of NSA surveillance are raising questions about press freedom here. All of that is part of the Committee to Protect Journalists' annual assessment of press freedom worldwide - it's called "Attacks on the Press"; it's out now. We wanted to talk about some of those findings, so we've called Sherif Mansour. He is the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He's with us in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

SHERIF MANSOUR: Thank you.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've called, once again, Leila Fadel. She is international correspondent for NPR based in Cairo. Leila, welcome back to you as well.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Sherif, let me start off by talking about Egypt. Can you explain what is it that these journalists are charged with?

MANSOUR: They're charged with joining and assisting a terrorist organization - in this case, the Egyptian government is referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a group that supports President Morsi in power. They have no proof against them so far that we've seen, other than the equipment that they've used to broadcast news. When they stormed into their office, they didn't find weapons; they didn't find anything that incites violence. All that they had was tools that they used to report on the news in Egypt and events that were going on.

MARTIN: So I take it you believe that these charges are without merit, that this is essentially an attack on their ability to speak with people from all sides of the conflict.

MANSOUR: Absolutely. It's consistent with the Egyptian government - a coordinated effort to censor the press, and their attempt to criminalize journalistic work and send a chilling wave to silence journalists who are not toeing their line to the government line.

MARTIN: Is speaking to the Muslim Brotherhood illegal now?

MANSOUR: That's what we're trying to figure out. I think the Egyptian government have tried to clarify that, but their answers were not satisfactory to us and to many of the journalists, especially foreign journalists who are using them on trying to get them on the record to get their perspective on the news.

MARTIN: Leila, you are there now. Can you tell us how these events are being reported in Egypt and how are reporters there trying to respond to what is being perceived, certainly by those of us in our profession, as an attack on press freedom?

FADEL: Well, it has - as Sherif said - sent a clear message to a lot of the journalists here, especially foreign journalists who are trying to speak to people on all sides. We do worry about whether the fact that we're talking to everybody and reporting the way that we see it, you know, the truth that we're seeing, will then be punished. These are our colleagues, these are colleagues that we've seen in the field and suddenly they're charged with terrorism.

And the evidence being used against them are things that are in my office and the office of so many journalists - notebooks, computers, cameras, recorders; things that we all use on a daily basis to report the facts. But unfortunately, in the local press, it's being displayed as a terrorist case, as if these guys are real dangerous criminals when in fact, we know that they're just regular journalists doing their job.

MARTIN: How are news organizations responding to this challenge? And, Leila, maybe you'll start - are journalists there reporting in groups? Are they trying to, say, create - I don't know -transnational groups so that one particular group is not the focus of the attention? How do you respond to this?

FADEL: We're - honestly, we're just doing our jobs. We're trying to get clarification from the government on what is legal and what is illegal. And they still haven't told us if it is actually illegal to speak to the Muslim Brotherhood. We still go out and report in the streets, but there's a lot more hostility towards us because a lot of the foreign press is being demonized in the local media as if they're working against Egypt rather than just reporting on what's happening. And in the case of the Al Jazeera journalists, for the first time really, you're seeing organizations come out and ask for their release - including NPR, who've said that, you know, freedom of expression is important to all of us in our field.

MARTIN: Sherif Mansour, can you tell us about other areas of concern that are discussed in this report?

MANSOUR: Well, we have a risk list in which we identify the most deterioration that took place in press conditions around the world. And we highlight countries in which we see that deterioration happen. One of them is Egypt, we talked about Al Jazeera, but this is one event of, like, a coordinated crackdown on the press that resulted in at least six fatalities among journalists who were covering news and dozens of arrests of journalists, including Al Jazeera.

MARTIN: You know, for years, though, Iraq was a place where journalists were very much at risk for violence. Obviously, it was a war zone, you know, for many years - some might argue that, you know, it still is. So is the major concern right now in the part of the world that you focus on, is it attacks by governmental entities or political entities who are trying to suppress reporting? Or is it the overall environment of violence, which affects everyone?

MANSOUR: Well, political violence is one of the main reasons we had 70 fatalities among journalists last year, and most of those were in the Middle East. Syria still drives the fatality rate in an unprecedented way. Iraq is the second on the list, and we have recorded and documented 10 cases at the end of the year, which was also a return of that era where Iraq was the worst country for journalists. But, in addition, there are areas of concerns about imprisoning journalists. And we see that 2013 was also one of the top years in terms of the number of journalists behind bars. And Turkey is actually - is leading that trend with imprisoning most of the journalists in the region, followed by Iran and China.

MARTIN: It would be - in the spirit of fairness we must ask about the situation in the United States because there is concern from many people - not just journalists - about the way the government is pursuing information and the manner in which it is pursuing and particularly using technology. This is obviously a very controversial issue. Some people consider the data collection, these other methods entirely, you know, appropriate. So I'd like to ask, what is CPJ's, the Committee to Protect Journalists' perspective on this?

MANSOUR: Well, for the first time this year in our risk list we included cyberspace as one of the areas where we see the most deterioration. And we think that the U.S. government has been more responsible on that front than any other government. That's because of the U.S. government approach to information flow, their surveillance - NSA surveillance - their aggressive prosecutions for those who are accused of leaking information and also for an overall environment of lack of transparency that we see with this administration, specifically a rise in the number of requests that was denied on the ground of national security for Freedom of Information requests.

MARTIN: Leila, before we let you go, is there a final - actually, I'm going to ask each of you if there is any area of improvement that you can highlight, you know, focusing in Egypt? Is there any positive sign from the perspective of journalists' support for them in the civil society, for example, or concern in civil society about the free flow of information?

FADEL: Yeah, I think the answer is no. We've seen a deterioration in the past six months that is really unprecedented for decades. We're seeing a lot of really rough or harsh language coming from the government towards journalists and actually anybody who criticizes, using laws like insulting the judiciary or the spreading of false news to imprison journalists, to harass journalists, to threaten journalists. And this is happening to a lot of local journalists and, to a lesser extent, foreign journalists. And this case against Al Jazeera English really highlights how bad it's become for the press.

MARTIN: Sherif Mansour, what about globally? Is there any area of improvement that you can report?

MANSOUR: Well, for the first time last year the U.N. have used its mechanisms to produce a resolution to protect journalists around the world. And they have declared November 2 as a day to fight impunity and prosecuting attacks against journalists. But there are also some successes here and there - for example, in Brazil, we've seen more prosecutions take place against those who have killed journalists. And Tunisia in the Middle East, there was a better constitution drafted for the first time - removed censorship from the constitution and the penal code.

MARTIN: Sherif Mansour is the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He was here with us in Washington, D.C. Leila Fadel is NPR's international correspondent based in Cairo. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

FADEL: Thank you.

MANSOUR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.