The arrest of four Al Jazeera journalists this weekend marked the first time journalists with foreign passports have been arrested by Egypt’s interim government, prompting widespread concern among reporters in Cairo.
“Every day it feels like there is another horror story about a journalist being detained for using a tape recorder at a protest, or taking a photo from his car without prior permission,” said one freelance European photographer based in Cairo. “They change the rules of the game however it suits them. And right now, the goal seems to be to make it as hard as possible for the press in Egypt to operate. The arrest of the Al Jazeera guys is just the most recent nightmare.”
The four Al Jazeera journalists were arrested after nightfall Sunday and charged with using their suite in the five-star Marriott Hotel in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood for filming “illegal interviews.” Egypt’s Interior Ministry suggested in a statement that the interviews were with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist group last week. Members of Egypt’s journalist syndicate, however, told BuzzFeed that it was “perfectly legal” to interview Brotherhood officials, and said they were arrested for “other reasons,” without offering clarification.
In a statement calling for the release of the journalists on Monday, Al Jazeera named them as correspondents Peter Greste, an Australian national; Mohamed Fawzy and Baher Mohamed, both Egyptian nationals; and Mohamed Fahmy, who holds Egyptian and Canadian citizenship. Several Al Jazeera reporters remain in detention from earlier this year, including Abdullah Elshamy, who was arrested on Aug. 14 when police dispersed an Islamist protest camp in Cairo, killing hundreds in clashes.
The targeting of Al Jazeera journalists began earlier this year, when Egyptian officials accused the Qatar-owned station of fostering ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and bolstering the Islamist group. Qatar was a strong financial backer of the Brotherhood’s rule. Its relationship with Cairo has deteriorated in recent months as it vehemently opposes the army’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood this summer.
“State security received information that a member of the (Brotherhood) used two suites in a Cairo hotel to hold meetings with other members of the organization and turned the suites into a press center,” read a statement by the Interior Ministry, which was posted to Faceboook. “(They) made live broadcasts of news that harms homeland security, spreading rumors and false news to Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel without permits.”
Reactions to the statement, especially on Facebook, showed that many Egyptians supported the move. “Thank God,” wrote Meroo Mustafa, later adding, “long live the army and police.”
The arrests of the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt is part of a much wider crackdown on voices of dissent. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested for taking part in illegal demonstrations. Most are from the Muslim Brotherhood, but some have also come from secular groups fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Egypt.
“This is just the beginning,” said one British journalist, currently based in Cairo. “They came for Al Jazeera first, because they have already started a campaign targeting them. But what we are seeing is a rapid shutdown of press freedom in Egypt.”
The journalist spoke anonymously, because he “does not want to risk becoming the next target.”
“At almost every protest, every bombing these days we hear of a journalist being arrested or detained. Most are let go quickly, and nobody really talks about it, but it’s frighteningly autocratic in Egypt these days,” he said.
On the Facebook groups and message boards used by foreign journalists in Egypt, there have been calls for a petition to be drafted that calls on better protection for journalists. In recent months, Egypt’s Foreign Press Center has issued often-confusing edicts, telling journalists that they have to request permission prior to any interview or public recording, saying that the rule was for “their own protection.”
“Journalists here are worried about their shrinking freedoms,” said Hani Mostafa, a manager at the Ahram weekly newspaper. “When the country is unstable the hand of the police is strengthened and the hand of freedom is weakened.”
Online, journalists asked whether interviewing the Muslim Brotherhood, or just walking around with a camera, was illegal.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said on Monday that Egypt, Syria, and Iraq have become among the deadliest countries for journalists to work in.
In a special report, the organization said conditions in the country had “deteriorated dramatically.”
“Amid stark political polarization and related street violence, things deteriorated dramatically for journalists in Egypt, where six journalists were killed for their work in 2013,” CPJ said.
News organizations with offices in Cairo have talked about implementing new security protocols for correspondents based there, including keeping the phone number of a local lawyer and contact person at the relevant embassy appraised when taking trips out of Cairo.
“No one would call this a war zone, I wouldn’t think, but its definitely a very hostile environment for journalists right now,” said the British journalist.