By William Fisher
Her name is, let us say, Aya. She is a 20-year-old Egyptian, who is finishing her university study in Cairo while working as a journalist for a local newspaper. Soon after the US invasion of Iraq, she was in a downtown hotel lobby translating her Arabic notes for a visiting foreign journalist. It was a day when Cairo University students were demonstrating against the war in Iraq.
This is what she told me about what happened then. “All of a sudden two State Security officers came and asked the visiting journalist to show his ‘permit’ and he did not have one. So they left the guy and arrested me. They kept me there for six hours. Next day, I was arrested again and taken to their headquarters, where I was interrogated again by two State Security agents, and accused of spying on Egypt.
“They barraged me with questions like, “Why did you choose to film the interviews near the soldiers? What were you writing in your notebook? Why did you lie to the students and did not tell them where you were going? Why did you take $150 from the journalist? How did you know him? Are you a leftist? Do you usually participate in demos? What kind of articles do you cover in your magazine? Why did you sell your country to $150? Why you were asking students about the war in Iraq? Did you ask them about their opinion about the current regime? Why did the foreign journalist not have a permit to film? Why did you choose university students to interview? Why didn’t the students take money too?”
“I was finally released at 1am, Aya recounts, adding: ““I was lucky, I think because I threatened to let the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights know of my situation. The State Security didn’t want that kind of trouble. But while I was there I saw tens of students beaten up, screaming to confess to things that they had not done. And when I was leaving I saw three sets of parents who were crying, saying that they had not seen their kids in a month and did not know where they were. Later, I met many, many people who were arrested for weeks and tortured. Most of them were journalists who were covering the demos. What is also disgusting is that if someone is suspected of committing a crime and they cannot find him or want him to confess, they arrest his family, beat them up, take off all their clothes and sometimes try to rape his sisters or mom. “
Not long ago, President Mubarak proclaimed to the journalists’ organization that no journalist would ever again be put in jail for a ‘publishing offense’. But, according to Aya, “things are not getting any easier for journalists here. The presidential decree banning journalists from being imprisoned for publishing a story is simply fiction. The reason is that it is unconstitutional to issue a presidential decree while the parliament in session. So the issue is now being discussed in parliament, which means that a new law will be in the making for at least a couple of years. Meanwhile, she says, “I know tens of my fellow journalists who would write things that would put them in jail in a second.”
And many of them have. The 1996 press law allows prison sentences for libel, "insults" and "putting out false news." Many journalists and cyber-dissidents have been given jail terms and some are still in prison. The so-called Emergency Laws, enacted after the assassination of Pres. Anwar Sadat, give the government even more draconian power to stifle press freedom. As a result, Egyptian journalists and their employers are forced to practice self-censorship.
Aya says she has asked herself many times, “Can I really become a journalist in this country? Will I be able to write about important things and tell the truth?” She has considered emigrating to the UK or the US, but has now decided to stick it out in Egypt. “Perhaps if the world knows more about what is happening here, Egypt will be ashamed of itself and try and change its reputation. I only hope I will live to see the day when there are some real changes in my country.”
We hope so too.
About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration