This week Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid will be awarded the 2018 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize during World Press Freedom Day, hosted this year by Ghana. As with the many recipients before him, he won’t see the conference sessions or attend the gala dinner in Accra.
The Egyptian, known as Shawkan, will be in prison when the award is presented on Wednesday. He was covering a demonstration at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in Cairo when he was arrested on August 14, 2013, and has remained there since.
Shawkan is one of 366 defendants, all caught up in the crowd dispersal at Rabaa Al-Adawiya though his attorneys argue he covered the event as any journalist does. The prosecutor in his case, which next picks up on May 5, has called for the death penalty. Meanwhile, the government of Egypt has attacked UNESCO for choosing Shawkan as the recipient.
Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said that “bestowing the accused Shawkan with an international award constitutes a disregard of the rule of law and the judicial procedures taken against an individual accused of purely criminal offenses.”
Egypt denies that the arrest was politically motivated or in any way attached to freedom of expression or the practice of journalism, as Shawkan stands accused of terrorism, murder, and burning and vandalism of property.
“We warn against the consequences of politicizing UNESCO, dragging it into the agenda of certain countries, and having the organization drift away from its civilizational and cultural role,” Abu Zeid said, suggesting that the Shawkan selection was motivated by Qatar and its Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Press freedom in Egypt
Shawkan’s case is one of about 20 journalists held in Egypt in 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They include Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Husein, held since 2016 and accused of Muslim Brotherhood support and attempting to overthrow the government. CPJ has condemned the lack of pressure from Western democracies on press freedom and human rights.
“The prolonged imprisonment of Egyptian journalists comes as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi battles deadly extremism and high unemployment in the country, and as Cairo and Washington cooperate closely on security,” CPJ said in a December year-end review. “Soon after el-Sisi met Trump at the White House in April, his government passed a draconian anti-terrorism law that furthered its crackdown on the press by, among other things, enabling authorities to put journalists acquitted of terrorism-related charges on a terror watch list that restricts their financial and other rights, according to news reports.”
In December 2016, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry – in the United States to meet with the incoming administration of President Donald Trump – insisted that no one is ever accused on the basis of their freedom of expression or civic responsibility. Yet Shoukry was clear that Egyptian officials “had their own vision of what they considered in the best interests of the public,” he told PBS News Hour.
Ahead of Sisi’s March re-election the suppression kicked into high gear, according to AFTE, an Egyptian free-speech advocacy NGO that released a special report Sunday. It details a number of cases, noting that for journalists working in Egypt, “Their safety and freedom are threatened all the time, and that threat is not only limited to those covering sensitive issues such as politics and parties.”
Press freedom across Africa
Egypt is no rare exception on the continent, as the 2018 World Press Freedom Index makes painfully clear. The report, released last week by Reporters Without Borders, ranked Egypt abysmally low at 161 of 180 countries measured for their transparency as well as repression and abuses. Eritrea, ranked just above last-place North Korea, was worse; so were Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia, Equatorial Guinea and Libya.
But if MENA states and the Horn of Africa again seem to be where press freedom is most constrained, the new index makes clear that’s not the case. An increasingly dangerous Tanzania is exposed with one of the biggest year-on-year falls from grace, as President John Magufuli cracks down on all criticism and dissent. Opposition politicians and journalists including the exiled Ansbert Ngurumo and the still-missing Azory Gwanda are on a growing list of the dead, disappeared and detained in what Ngurumo warns is now a police state.
In relatively high-ranking Madagascar (54), journalist Fernand Cello of Radio Jupiter was given a suspended jail sentence – one issued for the first time in 40 years as a result of investigative reporting that exposed corruption. In Democratic Republic of Congo, African NGO Journalists in Danger reported 121 cases of abuse in 2017, while investigative journalist Aunício da Silva was threatened at gunpoint in Mozambique. Cameroon saw a complaint filed after it disconnected the Internet, and another from 45 Anglophone media professionals over hate speech.
Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Niger – it’s an endemic and alarming trend across Africa, and one that speakers and participants at the conference in Ghana, now the highest-ranked African country on the index, seek to address. An important piece is how the achievement of sustainable development goals in Africa relies on access to information, and it’s one that the rest of the world needs to support.
Image: Freedom of Shawkan campaign