A Country With No Immune System

In human bodies, the first thing a virus targets is the immune system. As in human bodies, the first thing Dictatorships target is freedom of expression and more specifically, press freedom. If successful, the Dictators' task would be much easier in controlling their people, in sucking dry their fortunes and more seriously, their spirit.

If this is the case, which it is, then allow me to be much less ambitious by limiting myself to speaking only about the necessity of limiting the ability of Arab countries, Egypt more specifically, from using Media as a lethal weapon. Media, in the hands of Dictators, has been used to kill people for the mere fact that they are opposed to their ruling regime, either politically or ideologically. It goes without saying that most of the so called "Terrorists" who have been executed were guilty of nothing more than peaceful opposition. The sheer lie about their being terrorists is used to justify unjustifiable crimes.

In a quick review of the press map in 17 of 22 Arab countries, we find approximately:

  • 3000 newspapers and magazines
  • 29,000 print journalists
  • 1800 T.V and Radio stations
  • 30,000 T.V and radio journalists

However, it is noteworthy to say that 26% of these journalists happen to be Egyptians working both outside and inside Egypt.

It's also important to note that Egypt was the first Arab country to introduce journalism to the Middle East in the modern sense of the word thanks to the French invasion in 1799. For decades, Egypt has become a lighthouse in many terms, including the Press, for Arab countries. For these reasons and others I am not going to confine myself to diagnosing the Egyptian case, which is the best measure of how deep the abyss Press has reached in the Arab World. Also, in light of the depth of despair we have reached in Egypt, I am not going to talk about press freedom and freedom of expression, but will instead talk about their absence.

I'm speaking about how Media in Egypt became a killing machine when freedom of expression was suppressed and when independent journalists were severely repressed.

I'm speaking about my 12 fellow journalists who were killed over the last two and a half years, most of them murdered.

I'm speaking on behalf of 107 other journalists detained; most of them detained without charges, some with pending trials and others on trial defending their lives against bogus charges.

I'm speaking for at least a dozen TV stations shut down.

I'm speaking about such statistics which resulted in Egypt dropping to #159 of 180 countries listed as the worst in terms of press freedom. The only Arab country which broke Egypt's record number was Syria which dropped to #177 followed only by the worst: Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

However, I feel obliged to introduce facts and figures that might give a better idea of what we're talking about here. Currently, there are approximately 45,000 detained in Egypt's prisons, which is likely to increase. Breaking down this number we find that:

  • 1365 are women, most of whom have been detained for merely practicing their right to freedom of expression
  • 1489 are children from 12-18 year old; 65 are seriously ill.
  • 1618 suffer from serious diseases, some which are terminal.
  • 38 have reportedly died, some as a result of torture and others due to medical negligence.
  • 4806 are medical doctors, surgeons and engineers.
  • 9221 are recent graduates or university students from different parts of the world.
  • 224 are university professors and scientists, some of whom have been listed in Who's Who in the World

In light of these facts and figures, which are but mere examples of many other violations, it is obvious how dire the situation is in Egypt.

By early 2010, Egypt had reached the end of the line with Mubarak's lingering dictatorship. There was commotion on the streets with demonstrations and civil strikes on a daily basis. After all, some disruptions were necessary to divert the attention of the public from their fundamental cause: freedom.

I remember one night in January 2010, I was watching one of these talk shows when a conversation between two journalists, one serving as anchor and the other as a guest, turned to the so-called spread of Baha'ism in Southern Egypt. I was horrified when they proceeded to name specific villages whose Muslim population had supposedly converted to Baha'ism. The problem was not just raising the issue, as if it were an issue. Rather, it was the hate speech and inciting language they used which was most serious. At that point, I assumed a catastrophe could happen within hours. Unfortunately, the results exceeded my worst expectations. The following day, scores of homes owned by the alleged converts were set ablaze.

Did the government question these two journalists on the talk show? Of course not, for they had done similar things in the past. Their reputation preceded them, known to be journalists who, for many years, had been willing to render this type of service to Dictators, and in the absence of freedom of expression and press freedom, they continued to get away with their actions.

Needless to say, these side shows have been multiplying and accelerating since this particular event. Here, I am talking about a major shift, a U turn where dictatorships force criminal acts onto Media; instead of an immune system established to achieve accountability and transparency, the Media is turned into a killing machine and when I say that, I mean it literally in many cases.

It goes without saying that dictatorships would not be capable of imposing such a U turn without shutting down independent Media outlets and shutting up independent journalists. And that is exactly what has been happening in my home country for the last two and a half years.

On May 3, 2012, I addressed a celebrating audience in Cairo on the World Day of Press Freedom by saying, "On today's occasion, I wanted to start by quoting the great Martin Luther King when he said, 'I have a dream'. However, standing a trial myself on charges that authorities know are totally bogus, makes me say, "I have a nightmare."

Ironically, that celebration came at the height of my trial, defending charges for the intention to train Egyptian journalists on how to be better journalists. Aside from the fact that it was a good cause, I was being charged for the mere intention, as the program had not started. In my worst dreams, I had never imagined such an accusation. However, my anger that day stemmed not only from that fact. Rather it was due to those who I saw among the celebrating audience, some were fellow journalists who I had known for years, or whom I thought had known, yet they were following the instructions given them by the Executive to discredit and disparage me in their coverage of the trial.

Worse, I saw among the audience, three of the civil lawyers who attended every hearing of my trial, stating to the judge that my charges were deserving of the death penalty. Ironically, the same three civil lawyers complained to the judge in the middle of the trial that they were never given a free copy of the case papers for which they had to pay a fee, the equivalent of 800 U.S Dollars. In other words: they demanded the death penalty for a journalist indicted in the case, yet they never even read the case papers.

I was the first journalist to stand trial, the first of many bogus cases, which resulted in my receiving a sentence of 2 years imprisonment with hard labor. The trial started 8 months after Mubarak stepped down, and I received the sentence only 29 days before Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi took over from former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013. The main purpose of the case was to defame the January 25th 2011 revolution and to depict it as a Western plot against Egypt. Whoever fabricated this case used State controlled Media, both public and private, to propagate the lies.

Recollections of these events make my heart go out for all my fellow journalists who are facing trials, locked in the same cage, and for all other fellow journalists who are currently languishing in prisons. For this reason, I appeal to my fellow independent journalists to hang on to each other, or else we will all hang next to each other.

In the meantime, I say to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that there is always a chance to reconsider. This is not always a bad thing, especially when done with the aim of reconciliation. It's never too late when it comes to reconciliation. The first step to reconciliation is to stop injustice.

This article was published on Yehia Ghanem website.