Exile and Journalism in a Global Pandemic: Voices from the MDJ

After a three month-long state-mandated lockdown, a historian interviewed the staff members and exiled media professionals who respectively work and live at the Maison des Journalistes regarding the impact of the covid19 pandemic on their lives. While the personnel talked about their current preoccupations vis-à-vis asylum applications and press freedom in professional terms, the asylum-seeking journalists shared their own experiences of exile and journalism from a much more intimate perspective.

The association Maison des Journalistes (“House of Journalists” – from now on MDJ) promotes three connected missions: 1) welcoming and supporting asylum-seeking media professionals in France by providing them with free accommodation in Paris; 2) fostering a healthy, free, and diverse digital public sphere encouraging exiled journalists’ professional activity; 3) spreading awareness of press freedom violation in the world among the youth through public events in schools, universities, and prisons.

I started an internship at the MDJ on June 8, 2020. Only one week before my arrival, the personnel had come back to the office for the first time since March 13, 2020. During the previous long months of state-mandated lockdown, the working operations had changed: remote working had become the rule and the members of the staff could not assist journalists through in-person meetings.

The fourteen exiled journalists the MDJ welcomes and provide with living accommodations and legal support were slowly rediscovering the liberty of leaving their rooms, returning to French language or journalism classes, and walk through Paris without restrictions. [Editor’s Note: Journalists could freely move within the residence, though they were recommended to practice social distancing and spend most of their time in their rooms]

My internship, thus, began in a very particular moment of the association’s life. The personnel were in the process of adapting all activities to the sanitary norms required by the covid19 pandemic.

I am an historian and as such I am interested in change over time, in the search for evidence, and in the analysis of continuities and discontinuities around a specific event or question. As I gradually settled in the MDJ, I started asking myself whether since the outbreak of the pandemic the people who work and live at the MDJ have experienced profound changes in the way they interpret and interact with what surrounds them or not. More specifically, do the MDJ’s staff and journalists think differently of the MDJ as both association and residence as well as of the broad notions of journalism and exile? If so, why?

To find answers to my questions, in the period from June 22 to July 6 I interviewed three of the seven staff members and five of the fourteen exiled journalists who respectively work and live at the MDJ. While I asked the same questions to all interviewees, in the end each conversation was different in terms of intensity, duration, location, level of formality, language (English, French), means of communication (written, oral) and collection of data (note taking, sound recording). I evaluated that, as my priority was to put my interlocutor at ease, I needed to adapt the interview format to each person’s rhythm and personality.

No matter their position or background, all interviewees said that, on a logistical level, the lockdown brought about challenges that still endure. The waiting time for an asylum procedure has significantly increased because the French Office for Refugee and Stateless People’s buildings closed during the lockdown and are currently facing a backlog; exiled journalists’ search for jobs and affordable accommodations has become more difficult as a result of the current economic crisis, which affects the association’s funding too; the MDJ and its partners had to postpone or cancel all public meetings, conferences, and debates for safety reasons. The Summer break too contributes to such a climate of wait, suspension, and uncertainty, as in France schools, universities, and most public offices usually either close or reduce their operations in July and August.

In interviews, the staff members highlighted the new challenges they face professionally, while exiled journalists lingered instead on how they experienced the health crisis and its effect on their life from a much more intimate perspective.

On the one hand, the Director Darline Cothière, the Partnership & Fundraiser Officer Camille Peyssard-Miqueau, and the Social Inclusion Officer Antonin Tort are all concerned with the financial crisis and its negative effect on the funding of the MDJ.

As the MDJ’s principal sponsors – mostly French medias – suffer a deterioration of their finances, one of the main preoccupations of the association is to develop new partnerships and initiatives that will contribute to the economic support of the MDJ.

Resident journalists did not place the financial crisis at the core of their concerns. The lockdown disrupted their quotidian lives. What they experienced as a major change in their lives is their habits in France and in the MDJ residence.  Each journalist had to deal with new inquietudes and loss of references.

The Director Darline Cothière interpreted exilees’ individual condition in terms of either resilience or fragility, depending on each person’s aptitudes and life trajectories.

Individually, the lockdown has made all of us weaker: each person as a result of their own capacities and life trajectory. Now, exiled journalists are characterized by resilience. […] For them, the health crisis has not been a repression, rather one more difficult experience to handle. Some journalists, nevertheless, lived this challenge with much concern and anxiety, which is legitimate. Why? They already face wait and live a transition period from their past life to their future life. Uncertainty plays an important role in their anxiety and frustration: uncertainty about their refugee status, the pandemic like us all, but also welfare benefits, family reunification, and the search for jobs.

The journalists found themselves locked in the residence for months. They confronted each other’s anxieties, frustrations, and expectations regarding the MDJ’s response to the health crisis.

As a Kurdish exiled photographer from Iraq, Karzan obtained his political refugee status in France in 2019.

A few journalists felt abandoned during that period. According to the Director, such a reaction is natural and made of the MDJ a microcosm of society:

There was a group effect. All the individual frustrations contributed to creating a climate of generalized concern. Those who were not afraid too became anxious. The MDJ, just like society, developed a movement of collective revindication and questioned the institutions’ legitimacy. Such a crisis uncovered that some journalists had a certain view of the MDJ that did not correspond to its real missions. […] During the lockdown, the journalists shared the same place and talked about their own frustrations and expectations. In these confrontations, fake information on the MDJ started circulating like fake news! This episode gave us the opportunity to identify a communication problem between the personnel and the journalists, and thus to elaborate new solutions: to inform journalists on the powers and missions of the MDJ, to organize workshops and regular meetings. The lockdown was but an opportunity to identify a problem and strengthen communication.

Representation of exile by the Mexican exiled cartoonist Boligán.

The first thing that struck me about exiled journalists’ responses to my questions was that they kept telling me about their life before the exile or connected their present condition with previous experiences they had in their home country.

When talking about his understanding of the lockdown as a distortion of the intertwining of space and time, Mohammed explained:

My understanding of time and space comes from my experience. Not my experience of the past lockdown, but of the besiegement of Douma, my city. You know when they say that the eye needs to look at a distant object as to be stimulated and feel comfortable. I didn’t see a distant object for 7 years in Syria. The sight in Syria is exhausting for the eye. Kidnapping, bombing, arresting, jihad allowed only a close sight. For 7 years they tried all weapons you can imagine on us, and after 7 years when this same space was still a target of attacks the time was still not running. When I left Syria in 2018 I felt like it was 2012, there had been no passing of time. I left Syria and arrived in Turkey. In Turkey, I saw for the first time people paying by touch. For me it was the first time in 8 years to see more than 800 people gathering in a place. In the train station in Turkey, there were 500 people arriving and leaving, and I realized that the world is so much connected for the first time. The lockdown is somehow connected to that experience of besiegement. It’s very different too: the whole world was in lockdown at the same time. The only aspect of the current crisis to hurt me has been the inequality of the virus: the virus affects some people much more than others. Just like the war in Syria. This idea of space/time of mine comes from the besiegement of my city.

Mamadou had a similar attitude:

I experienced Ebola in Guinea Conakry, my country. Ebola was not contained in my country because of the bad quality of health services. However, a vaccine has been found and there have been reliable treatments in addition to the vaccine. Moreover, it was an epidemic, not a pandemic. This is the main difference compared to the coronavirus.

Drawing on fakenews and Covid19 by the French cartoonist Plantu. Exhibition organized by the City of Paris in occasion of "Un été particulier".

The second thing that struck me is that all the journalists expressed an ardor for journalism that far exceeded professional fulfillment.  For them, journalism is not just a profession, it is a life mission. Mamadou explained why he chose not to publish articles during the lockdown and what has concerned him the most since the outbreak of the pandemic:

A journalist is by definition someone who adapts to a new situation. With the health crisis I realized that journalists had the great responsibility of keeping the readership informed on what was going on in the world. Many journalists decided to report the brute data on the thousands of daily positive cases and deaths, and by doing so they contributed to giving articles a certain quality and thus to actively contributing to such a climate of anxiety. I did not write much because I saw that the news with the brute data on deaths added sadness and anxiety. Moreover, I realized that the fake news circulated a lot: there was a proliferation of fake information in countries like mine where the leadership does not give journalists the permission to get access to the information on the pandemic. This situation challenged journalists all over the world, not just in Guinea Conakry. It was one of the most important challenges faced by press freedom. Journalists could not freely go on the field to verify the quality of sources; they could not act as first-hand witnesses. I thus decided to engage myself in spreading awareness of the quality of the news rather than in the writing of articles.

Other journalists as well evoked fake news, lack of transparency, and journalists’ responsibilities in the current health crisis. Mohammed said:

During the lockdown fake news and tabloid news circulated more than before. For example, a friend of mine sent me a video of a supposedly coronavirus-infected person leaking a handrail in the metro. But of course there was no proof that this person did that during the pandemic, or that he was actually sick. In Syria, this kind of issues literally kills people. Do you know what happens if someone says that tomorrow there is no sugar or toilet paper in the stores in my city in Syria?

Maiirbek (Kazakh investigative reporter on Chinese concentration camps):

Because of the pandemic situation, I interacted less frequently with sources in China and Kazakhstan.

And an Egyptian video journalist who asked me to remain anonymous confessed to me:

I have been much worried for my family because there is no transparence and press freedom in Egypt, and you cannot know how the situation develops. I always contact my relatives and tell them to stay at home, while in Egypt the medias say that everything is fine. In Africa, in Egypt the situation is very critical because there are no developed hospitals. I am still much concerned. The situation gets worse, and the epidemic propagates.

Bilal is a Turkish caricaturist in exile as a result of his criticism of President Erdogan’s policy.

On the other hand, the five exiled journalists I interviewed were more willing to share their personal perspectives on the pandemic and its impact on the present and the future.

Mohammed (Syrian photojournalist at EPA.eu) described his perception of the lockdown in terms of space and time.

What makes speed is the intertwining of time and space. When space is static for a long period, time stops: speed decreases to almost zero.

“Lockdown: you lock your spirit in the down”, Mohammed told me.

What happened during the lockdown is that the stopping of time brought about weaknesses and an overall sense of depression at the MDJ:

During the lockdown, the 2h/day I spent with the other journalists were very sick, because of the difficult time. Journalists wouldn’t go to the gym, school, etc. and had a very negative attitude. By now, I am more aware about the limits and fragilities of anyone (including me). Another problem is that many people who had been in conflict areas have an attitude that relativizes the pandemic, like “we suffered a lot in our life, we don’t care about coronavirus”. When I talk to my friends in Syria, they don’t care. They say: “we will die, finally”.

Beyond the overall feelings of hopelessness, exiled journalists perceived and reacted to the lockdown in different ways. For example, both Adam (Chadian free-lance journalist) and Mamadou (free-lance journalist from Guinea Conakry) told me that, when the French government established the lockdown, the fourteen journalists abruptly distanced themselves, each isolating in their room. “This big family brutally distanced itself”, Mamadou said.

Yet, isolation had different meanings for the two. Adam faced unbearable boredom and learned to be patient.

Mamadou, conversely, told me that he and other journalists experienced a deep lack of self-confidence as from one day to the other their advisors (professional, legal, academic) were not available to support them. As his university professors could not instruct him in person on his thesis, Mamadou was forced to work on his own. This gave him the opportunity to gain self-confidence and a renewed sense of responsibility:

We used to see people, have open doors. I loved to stop by the personnel’s offices and say “hello” every morning. We found ourselves without any service, which gave us new responsibilities. […] Among journalists, before the lockdown, we didn’t need each other. The lockdown solidified solidarity. We helped each other with our new responsibilities, for example I helped a fellow journalist write e-mails in French. […] I feel like I am more independent than before because I work on my own and don’t need the approval or advice of my professors. I learned that I can be alone and work confidently.

Both Adam and Mamadou felt “united from a distance”, in Adam’s words, but in such a distance each found different teachings.

Mohammed’s experience of the lockdown was still different and corresponded to what the Director of the MDJ calls the “resilience” of political refugees:

Being in exile, which I really don’t wish you to try, but imagine, in exile, everything is painful, and all suffering means nothing to me. It’s like a knife stabbed in your heart, you don’t care if a bee comes to bite you. You’ll have this poker face without any feeling, all your thought will be on your country. Exile is like a knife that prevents any needle to stab in you. It’s just a poker feeling, a poker face in the heart. If you drink coffee and you drink tea after, you won’t feel the taste of tea because the taste of coffee is too strong. For me the pandemic is a needle, because the government is on your side, people are on your side, there is a common enemy to fight. But I am always discriminated: I am accused to be affiliated with ISIS, I can’t speak French but people only speak in French to me, even the refugees here discriminate the refugees and only respect the French. In Arabic exile has a very bad meaning. It comes from the verb “push someone to leave”, the idea is of “forced displacement”. If you say it in Arabic you should cry.

Whereas the staff members talked to me only in professional terms, these answers suggest that exiled journalists did not distinguish between their professional and personal understandings of both the pandemic and the lockdown.

During the lockdown, Mamadou got upset about police controls on the mobility of people. The French state mandated that people could leave their home only for 1h/day within 1 km from their home and hold a signed self-certification that reported the exact time and reasons for the leaving. Exiles, Mamadou told me, are afraid of being asked for documents by the police each time they leave their shelter. The usual worry about being inspected, during the lockdown, became a constant fear for him. The police could ask anybody for documentation at any time, not in response to a particular instance. Such a climate of surveillance was a source of wide-spread anxiety among political refugees like Mamadou.

The following passage by Mohammed best exemplifies how exiled journalists made recurrent references to life before exile and journalism as a life mission. In midst of the lockdown, in mid-April, his press agency appointed him to take a picture of the 8 pm collective clapping, a daily ritual for people in France to show their gratitude for hospital workers from their window. That day, Mohammed was invested by similar feelings to those he experienced as a photojournalist in Syria:

Taking a picture is not just about the frame, the angle or perspective. I should care about the lightness and the time (and time and lightness are also connected). Once I had to take a picture of the 8pm clapping that included the Eiffel Tour. This reminded me of my time in Syria, when I took pictures during the suspension of the curfew, when I waited for safety moments to take pictures and go out from my shelters. Sometimes I just had one minute or just 40 seconds. I didn’t know where the bomb would come from, or my safety. I didn’t know how to take pictures, and from what angle, and with what lightness, because the rest of the day I was all the time in the shelter. I needed to build my time in the very short safety time. I was in the shelter, I received Whatsapp messages on what was going on, and then I would go out and take a picture of a bird, and then I would start hearing the noise of bombs and run to my shelter. So what happened during the lockdown was that I was assigned to take pictures of people who were clapping at 8pm, and I wanted to put the Eiffel Tower in the background. The clapping lasted only a few minutes, if not seconds. I had to go and take a picture. I found a woman on a balcony and I had the feeling that she would clap. I was afraid of taking pictures because I felt the pressure of the deadline. In one minute, I was able to take more than 300 takes, of which 5 good shots. It reminded me of when I was in Syria. I was back to the MDJ feeling just like when I went back to my shelter in Syria.

The exiled journalists that I interviewed do not envisage exile and journalism differently than they did before the outbreak of the pandemic and the lockdown. Rather, the crisis gave them the possibility to better understand their own identity of exiles as well as to confirm the importance of their action as journalists.

Picture by Mohammed of 8pm clapping with the Eiffel Tower in the background. April 2020. Courtesy of EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED BADRA.

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Chronicles from Egypt 3/4 – Searching for Justice

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

Episode 3 – Searching for justice: lawyers and human rights organizations at work

Let us go back to the tense moments following Hossam’s disappearance.

Suddenly, his family and friends found themselves into an unprecedented situation that required careful consideration. What were the best steps to take? Which were the most suitable people to reach out? Which organizations could help following his case? Who could be trusted?

With all these questions in mind and no time to waste, Hossam’s beloved ones quickly mobilized in his desperate search.

In reason of the distressing events of those days, major local human rights organizations were extremely responsive. Their Facebook pages were filled with documents explaining the most recommended procedures. Similar information were circulating through WhatsApp accompanied with phone numbers of trustworthy lawyers. A network of knowledgeable people were mobilizing to offer as much help as possible. Despite the unfavorable context, people falling into the unfortunate possibility of knowing anyone victim of enforced disappearance were not alone.

Few days after going to the local police station, Hossam’s family received the confirmation of what they had suspected from the very beginning. Hossam’s name appeared in the official list of people taken by the National Security near Tahrir Square on Saturday.

From that moment, the regular life of a tranquil family living in the Cairo countryside was turned ups and down. They had no choice but to start reach out lawyers, human rights organizations, local authorities in an attempt to bring Hossam safe back home.

Ahlam Almuetaqala (Dreams of the Detainee) Créateur: Inji Efflatoun Lieu: Egypt

The Egyptian fight against terrorism in court

After Al-Sisi takeover in 2013, fighting terrorism has represented the focal point in the official state discourse, progressively used after 2015 and further reinforced after last September protests. A comparative observation of the most recurrent charges suggests the arbitrary nature of legal justifications for the most recent detentions.

In addition to the accusation of “joining terrorist groups”, the charges of “spreading false news”, “misuse of social media” and “undermining national security” are persistently used. Under these very broad statements, it is evident that anyone could easily fall into the category of people to detain, as it was the case for Hossam.

As reported by Amnesty international in the weeks following the outbreak of protests, “The protesters and those arrested –who all face terrorism-related charges- have an extremely diverse range of age, socio-economic, gender and religious backgrounds, including non-political backgrounds”.

Human rights organizations have been pursuing several paths to review the penal code in order to bring more clarity to the reasons for detention in Egypt.

On December 14th and 15th, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) called for “the need to update and activate amendments”, especially with regards to pre-trial detention, but in vain. Rather, during the first months of 2020, the government proposed new legislative amendments to further toughen what human rights groups call the “draconian” 2015 anti-terrorism law. In fact, On February 10th, Egyptian parliament approved amendments to the anti-terrorism law, broadening the definition of terrorist activities and terrorist financing as well as imposing harsher sentences for terrorism-related crimes.

Lawyers and human rights organization at work: a strenuous struggle

In a country where the rule of law seems a mere abstraction, lawyers and human rights organizations could naturally be deluded. Nonetheless, many believers in the need for justice do not give up.

Remarkably, the weeks following the wave of arrests saw a well-orchestrated coordination of lawyers, human rights organizations, journalists, academics and activists denouncing that reality.

Numerous statements bringing light to the alarming application of law in Egypt were released. In October, NCHR called the last wave of arrest of people on the street unconstitutional. As a reaction, security forces mobilized all media outlets to criticize the council and his President, Mohamed Fayek, declaring that “he lacks knowledge of his own country’s laws”.

Although recurring to legal instruments to bring justice has proved to be extremely challenging, several lawyers continued their valorous struggle.

They were incessantly monitoring the situation, releasing essential information and taking action. Most importantly, they have put themselves at complete disposal of the community in need, sacrificing vital hours of sleep and any kind of personal life. A look into the Twitter and Facebook accounts of major lawyers reveals weeks of uninterrupted work, with posts published every hour, day and night.

Not only has that urgent scenario put a serious strain on lawyers’ psychological health, but it has also implied dangers for their safety.

Generally, an Egyptian lawyer defending sensitive causes can put his or her own life at risk. Remarkably, Ibrahim Metlawy, a lawyer working on the case of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni murdered in Egypt during his field research, was arrested, detained and tortured in September 2017.

Last September scenario further proved the current criminalization of human rights. Not only detention and torture, but also harassment and threats are recurrently adopted to discourage this activity. Among others, Human right lawyer and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) Gamal Eid was assaulted by a dozen of armed men who he suspected were police officers as reported by BBC on December 30th, 2019.

Gamal Eid posted a picture of himself covered in paint after the alleged attack-BBC

In their report “Human rights behind bars in Egypt”, EuroMed Rights monitors current human right defenders at risk showing the innumerous faces of those who have been targeted. In addition to detention, the Egyptian state frequently recurs to police probation, travel ban, asset freeze.

Lawyers and human rights defenders represent a vital component of the Egyptian community in search for justice. With their knowledge, strenuous work and unstoppable commitment, they have been assisting thousands of people in their journey through detention, while putting themselves at risk.

However, people’s confidence in the power of law to bring justice in cases of arbitrary detention has been challenged to the point of exhaustion. Without doubt, what remains in the mind of victims of injustice is the need of change while continuing “wrestling with the darkness” (نصارع الظلام) as framed by Egyptian revolutionary musician and poet Ali Talibab.

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Chronicles from Egypt 2/4 – « Systematic torture and abuses in Egyptian prisons »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 2 – Beyond deprivation of liberty: systematic torture and abuses un Egyptian prisons

The first stage of Hossam’s experience in prison was everything but untroubled. After preliminary control procedures at a police station, Hossam was moved to Tora prison. Tora prison is a familiar name for most Egyptians.

Among prominent figures who suffered from what a multitude of reports describe as cruel and degrading punishments, Mohammed Morsi’s five-year detention in Tora Prison and his successive death in court has become emblematic. Consequently, Tora prison represents in the mind of people a place of ill-treatment, abuse and torture.At the same time of his arrival, a group of detainees started a hunger strike to protest against torture.

As a result, everyone underwent increased ill treatment, including those as Hossam who did not participate in it.“For five entire days, for five entire days”, his brother keeps repeating, “Hossam could not see the light”. Predictably, he was not able to avoid torture. Detainees in Tora prison and he had to bear daily humiliation involving both verbal and physical violence.

Hossam’s experience as a prisoner did not come to an end there. After his first appearance in front of the “Niqab Amn al-Dawla”, the State Security Syndicate, he was charged with accusations of joining “terrorist organizations”. Abu Zaabal prison was therefore waiting for him.

During his 43-day imprisonment in Abu Zaabal Prison, the family could only visit him twice.

Policemen and people walk in front of the main gate of Tora prison in Cairo © HCR

Save Egyptian Detainees

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency, it is no secret that the crackdown on activists, bloggers, journalists, and researchers has reached an alarming peak.

It has become a common practice to silence opposition through enforced disappearance, assault and detention of people challenging the official state discourse. In its biannual report on detention in Egypt, the Detention Watch Project found 932 enforced disappearances, 638 arbitrary detentions, 320 equivocal killings from the first half of 2019. Notably, journalists have been among the most targeted categories. The International Press Institute (IPI) reported in December 2019 that 61 journalists were imprisoned and 25 arrested only during the three preceding months.

© CPJ - statistics - journalists attacked in Egypt since 1992

Furthermore, the September protests triggered a further escalation of governmental repression. The campaign launched on Twitter in November 2019 under the hashtag #SaveEgyptianDetainees confirms a deploring increase in arbitrary detention. As in the case of Hossam, several people were taken from the streets, leading to a registered number of 4321 detainees only in the weeks between September 20th and October 21st, 2019 according to The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms – ECFR.

Data on number of detainees from The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms © ECRF

Throughout that period, thousands of common citizens had to go through the experience of detention. Only after an exhausting waiting period with little information and extreme uncertainty, some of them were progressively released. As Cairo-based journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, explains on December, 4th, 2019: “While Egyptian authorities have continued to release hundreds of detainees since September 20 events, critics are kept in jail over vague charges”.

The threat of detention has been taking its extreme form, leading to a widespread awareness of the predominance of “Dhulm”, injustice, in the current Egyptian state.

Systematic torture in Egyptian prisons. If “Dhulm” is a recurrent thought in the minds of thousands of Egyptians, “Ta’azib”, torture, has similarly acquired a prominent status in the Egyptian Arabic vocabulary.

Illutsration prison Tora Egypt – © @yssinmhmd

Detention in Egypt does not limit itself to deprivation of liberty. Since President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s times, prisons were associated with ill treatment, abuses and, above all, torture.Yet, under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the State Security’s methods seem becoming exponentially brutal. “This is accurate, but outdated. Prisons today are much worse than this”, an Egyptian activist now living abroad exclaims. He was attending the screening of the movie inspired by true events on torture in Egypt “el Hatk” (The Assault) directed by Mohamed el Bahrawi.

This perceived increase in brutality of the practices adopted to silence opposition is also confirmed by official studies carried out by international organizations. In June 2017, the UN Committee against Torture stated that a study of current situation leads to “the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt”.

The numerous testimonies of former prisoners equally send an alarming message.In the article “Thinking with Alaa” by independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr, prominent human rights activist Alaa Abdel Fattah openly denounces its deploring conditions since the last of his numerous detentions in prison. In addition to the inevitable endurance of torture, during his imprisonment he was denied any basic needs such as access to reading materials, sunlight or clean water.

While the government has recurrently attempted to show a positive image of Egyptian prisons by organizing pre-scheduled visits for journalists and officials such as the open visit to Tora Prison last November, an independent research on the topic suggests a complete different reality.

International reaction On November 14th, 2019, Al Monitor reports that co-founder of April 6th movement and journalist Israa Abdelfattah would start a thirst strike. She was seeking to open an official investigation on complaints about her endurance of torture under custody. In a state where calls for a fair and transparent application of the rule of law are futile, people have been left with no other means but to recur to extreme gestures to make their cause being heard.It is here natural to wonder about the international reaction towards a country that has been manifestly violating fundamental human rights universally protected by international conventions.

In February 2020, six human rights NGOs requested in a joint letter to the European Council “to lead a comprehensive review of the European Union’s relations with Egypt” in reason of the sustained crackdown on human rights in the country.While numerous international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists and much more constantly denounce the alarming reality in current Egypt, states have often turned a blind-eye on the subject.

Even in front of prominent cases that have received extended media coverage and are directly related to other countries, governments have taken little or no action. The most recent case of Egyptian Patrick Zaki George studying in Italy and arrested at his arrival at Cairo Airport on February 7th, sparked a civil society outcry accompanied with some statements by politicians such as president of the European Parliament David Sassoli.However, we cannot observe any concrete steps to effectively re-discuss diplomatic and economic relations with Egypt.

Among others, business between Italy and Egypt is even increasing. Panarab newspaper al-Araby al-Jadid reported few days later that event the possibility of imminent agreement on armament between Cairo and Rome of 9 billiard euros.

Cases where the victims of the Egyptian repressive system are not only Egyptian citizens are recurrent, from the mysterious disappearance, torture and murder of Italian PHD student Giulio Regeni in 2016 to the death in prison of American-Egyptian Mustafa Kassem on January 13.The question is whether the international community will ever actively listen to and not merely pretend to hear the voices of thousands of people suffering from injustice in Egypt. Those voices screaming out loud the inhumanity of prison in Egypt, as expressed in Ramy Essam’s powerful song “Fe segn bel Alwan” (Colourful Prison).“Oh state of forlorn people, shame on your ideasGlory to prisoners as long as you are hypocrites”.

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Chronicles from Egypt 1/4 – “Not only afraid to talk… Total state of fear un today Egypt »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 1 – From a simple walk to detention

On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Hossam was walking in the street, near Tahrir Square. He just traveled all the way from 6th of October in order to deliver delicious home-made food kindly prepared by his 53 year-old mother for a foreign friend living in Cairo. 

He was supposed to be back home soon after that brief meeting. His mother was waiting at home, but the son did not show up. His elder brother now living abroad was trying to reach him, but to not avail. He had two phones, both of them mysteriously unreachable.

This is how the story of most Egyptians who get arrested begins.

Later, the family would know that he was kidnapped near Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the centers of the 2011 revolution widely renewed for its collection of graffiti filling the walls of the area at the time.  As the National Security Service brutally took him from the street and conducted him first to a police station and then to prison, Hossam suddenly turned from a free man walking in the street to a potential criminal confined in detention.

In the meanwhile, his family would have no official information on the reasons for his detention.

Talaat Harb Square. Downtown Cairo, December 2019. Photo by Veronica Merlo

Downtown Cairo transforms into a police state

This episode might not be surprising to any person who has recently lived in Cairo.

Visibly, “Wust el-Balad”, the downtown, and its surroundings have become sensitive areas under tight security control.

Plain clothes, police vehicles and soldiers perceptibly dominate the space around main streets, squares and bridges, as if the state would be either at war or ready to fight one. In a tweet from September 27th, 2019, BBC Arabic Correspondent in Egypt and Middle East, Sally Nabil, describes an unprecedented security deployment in the Egyptian capital and concludes: “Tahrir Square looks more like military barracks!”.

As I was living in Cairo at the time, I could myself witness a reality where “Egyptians are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions” in Naja Bounaim’s, Amnesty International North Africa Campaign Director, words.

Not only did people get used to be extremely cautious when speaking, but they equally feel vulnerable while simply walking or even staying in their own homes. In addition to “spot checks” of peoples’ phones, looking for content that might deem political, visits of people’s apartments from the “Mabaheth”, State Security Service Investigations, increased in frequency and degree of intrusion.

On a Sunday morning, I opened the door of my apartment in Mounira neighbourhood and I found myself in front of two people with civilian clothes accompanied by the “Bawab”, the doorman. After asking for the contract of the apartment, they did not hesitate to enter the rooms of my two flatmates and I. After a thorough search through our books, laptops and phones accompanied by precise questions on our identity, they proceeded to the nearby apartment.

Beyond urgent security measures: normalization of intrusion of people’s privacy

Undoubtedly, the September protests sparked by the publication of a series of videos by Egyptian former army contractor Mohamed Ali denouncing the corruption of the government from Spain provided the justification for the regime to take urgent actions. The measures adopted were conceived as part of the higher “battle against terrorism” which has been on the top of Al-Sisi’s agenda since his takeover in 2013.  The words from Al Sisi’s official account on Twitter on September 27th show the adoption of a reinforced discourse on the necessity for the nation to fight terrorism, a battle that, he states, “has not ended yet”.

While we could consider this exponential crackdown as a temporary reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019, the observation of the reality in Cairo in the following period tells us otherwise.

The aforementioned reinforced measures to preserve the country’s stability have uninterruptedly been in force in the last months, with only slight differences in degree of intensity depending on the week. As Egyptian Human Rights activist Mona Seif explains on a twit on October 13th, 2019 :  “Every week a new activist gets kidnapped from the street, from home, from work”.

Photo by New York Times in Egypt

In January 2020, the very same atmosphere of last September characterized by total control over people’s movements, words and life was re-newly manifest in the capital. On the anniversary of the 25th January revolution -now exclusively referred to as the traditional celebration of  “’Aid al Shurta”, “The Police Day”, in the official government’s discourse- downtown was unsurprisingly shut down. 

Cairo-based journalist for The Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, reported that day on Twitter: “In what is becoming a normalized assault on privacy, police searching people’s phones around downtown #Cairo, #Tahrir. Some restaurants aren’t delivering to that area today to avoid harassment of their delivery guys”.

In the article “Your guide to surviving downtown during the revolution anniversary crackdown” published by the independent online newspaper Mada Masr on January 21st, the testimonies of people describing their experiences of arbitrary arrests, raids and random searches suggest a repeated scenario of total control to which any Egyptian citizen can be subject.

Downtown between past and present

Without forgetting the extension of similar security measures to numerous cities all around Egypt, the scenario in downtown Cairo from where Hossam was kidnapped last September best exemplifies the current government’s policy of total control over the public and private space.

Paradoxically, a place historically associated with intellectual development, cultural exchange and artistic creativity, looks now like a police state. The principles of “Aysh, Hurriya wa Adala Ijtimaiya”, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”, circulating in that same area in 2011 have rapidly been substituted by an atmosphere of constant fear, where any activity, movement and word is under tight control.

The question remains whether the government’s repressive measures in a space that was once the symbol of Egyptian’s fight for freedom will succeed in redefining its past distinguished identity.

Zahrat al-Bustan, Local Cafë in Downtown Cairo with graffiti of prominent Egyptian figures. Photo by Veronica Merlo

For now, we can only silently observe the changing environment and society animating the area. A process of transformation where the concept of “the square” as formulated in the Egyptian revolution has merely become a memory, or rather “a story to tell in narrations”, as Egyptian rock band Cairokee warned in its famous revolutionary song “al Midan”, the Square.


O you the square, where were you long ago? […]

sometimes I am afraid that we become just a memory

we get away from you then the idea dies and fades away

and we go back to forget what happened

and you become a story to tell in narrations

يا يا الميدان كنت فين من زمان

ساعات بخاف نبقي ذكري

نبعد عنك تموت الفكرة

ونرجع تاني ننسي اللي فات

ونحكي عنك في الحكايات


Other articles

New balance from collapse of a weakened Iran

New balance from collapse of a weakened Iran The death of Iran’s terror chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the second most important figure of the regime, and Abu Mahdi Mohandis, the central figure of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi paramilitary force in Iraq, has brought the strategic edifice of the Iranian regime crumbling down. The Iranian regime is facing a resilient uprising at home and in Iraq and Lebanon, countries it once called its “strategic depth.” The uprising in Iraq is expanding further, into more cities and provinces every day.

Over the past 20 years, Soleimani extended the regime’s strategy by building proxy forces all through the region, moved to hollow out state institutions in regional countries, and supplant them with Qods Force-supported terror organizations posing as political factions.

As leader of the Qods Force, he aimed to establish a “Shiite crescent” of Iranian influence extending to the Mediterranean Sea and encircling conservative Arab countries in the Gulf.

With an ideology rooted in medieval Islamic dogma, the Iranian regime is unable to respond to the cultural, economic, and political demands of the Iranian people in the 21st century.

Domestically, the regime has sought to control widespread popular dissatisfaction with brute repression and gross human rights violations. At the same time, it has fanned sectarian conflicts and wars while interfering in the internal affairs of regional countries.

This is how the regime survives – by maintaining the strategic depth that would spare it from fighting on its own streets. For this reason, regime insiders remember Soleimani as the guardian of the regime’s security. Foreign adventurism allowed Soleimani to deploy terror and repression inside Iran as well, creating an illusion of security. Soleimani’s death has put Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a precarious position as he is fending off intensifying, cyclical uprisings.

Khamenei rationalized his foreign warmongering by saying, « If we do not fight the enemy in the streets of Iraq and Syria, we must fight them in the streets of Kermanshah, Hamedan, Tehran and other cities of Iran.« 

Now, Khamenei’s nightmare has come true, and his war with the Iranian people over their legitimate demand for freedom and prosperity has come to the streets of Iran. Amidst policies of appeasement over the past decade, Western countries have closed their eyes to the terrorism and the militaristic policies of Iran’s religious dictatorship in order to pursue their own economic interests.

But these policies are now over. With the withdrawal of the US from the JCPoA treaty in 2017 and the application of articulated sanctions on Iran, Khamenei was left alone on the battlefield, opposite the Iranian people.

“Hard Revenge”

The recent military confrontation with the United States has shattered the solemnity of the regime both locally and globally, burying it along with the regime’s terrorist power. Early on Wednesday, January 08, 2020, the Iranian regime fired several rockets for ‘tough revenge’ and attacked the al-Assad base near Baghdad, where US troops are stationed.

In contradictory statements, the Revolutionary Guards announced the firing of dozens of missiles at Ein Al-Assad and US military bases in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), which resulted in four Americans being killed and four others injured. Deliberate Error! But what is the reality? The regime’s claims were not backed up by any government, military or news sources.

Reuters news agency, however, said, “Iran is said to have intentionally fired missiles to the US forces in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, also tweeted that the regime had already contacted him about the missile attacks. Obviously, he revealed this information to the US authorities. Therefore, the regime’s slogans about ‘hard revenge’ and its other threats were suddenly exposed as absurd, followed by the regime’s fear of US counterattacks.

The Iranian regime had thought that the US was without a plan for war. They had the ambition to embarrass Trump by attacking the US embassy and executing other acts of terrorism in advance of the US election.

Their likely goal was to remove him from office, force the lifting of sanctions, or inspire disaffection in his supporters. Instead, they shattered their own fragile body of power by setting the stage for the death of Qassem Soleimani.

Prior to this, the regime wanted to convince European countries that they were a regional power and that they should be considered in setting Middle East policy.

Now, the fragile awe of the regime has collapsed, and a new balance has been established between the Iranian people and the regime.

As a result of this new equilibrium, in a new wave of mid-January demonstrations pioneered by students after the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, slogans targeted the supreme leader himself. Protesters have started asking the commander in chief to resign.

« A little prince in the land of the Mullahs », a denunciation in a Comic Book version

Discover the interview with the author of this article, Raouf Massoumeh, who presents his book « A little prince in the Land of the mullahs ».

The story of his young brother, Ahmad Raouf Bachari Doust, arrested five years before – at the age of 16 – and who will be among the 30,000 political prisoners executed.

Other articles

10 journalists and media workers killed in 2019 in Afghanistan

According to NAI – Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, 10 journalists and media workers killed and 21 injured in 2019. 115 violence cases recorded by NAI against journalists which include: assassination, wound up, beaten up, threats, insult, short-term arrestments, kidnap, attack on media outlets and lack of access to information in 2019 in the country.

At the same time, Reporters without Borders (RSF) in its annual report recognized Afghanistan the third dangerous country for journalists in 2019 in the world by killing of six journalists and media workers.

Taliban and Islamic State (ISIS) who involved in crimes against humanity are the most responsible for the attacks on Journalist and media staff in Afghanistan. they targeted the Journalist aimed at silence press freedom and fearless.

Who are the victims?

The first death of 2019 world wide

The first death of a journalist in 2019 word wide registered in Afghanistan. 27 years old Javid Noori was the first journalist killed by Taliban in 2019 in the world.

Name:Javid Noori

Job: citizen-journalist for Radio Neshat

Type of death: Murdered

By: Taliban

Location: Farah Province

Date: 5 January 2019

Name: Rahimullah Rahmani

Job: Presenter, Hamsada Radio

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unkown

Location: Taliqan, Takhar provine

Date: 5 Feb 2019

Name: Shafiq Aria

Job: reporter, Hamsada Radio

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unknown

Location: Taliqan, Takhar province

Date: 5 Feb 2019

Name: Sultan Mahmoud Khirkhwa

Job: Journalist, Zhman TV channel

Type of death: Murdered

By: ISIS

Location: Khost city

Date: 15 March 2019

Name: Meena Mangal

Job: former TV presenter at Lemar TV

Type of death: Murdered

By: unknown gunmen

Location: Kabul

Date: 11 May 2019

Name: Sakhi Baluch           

Job: Technician, State TV

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unkown

Location: Trinkut, Zabul province

Date: 12 June 2019

Name: Abdul raouf Emalzai

Job: Security guard, Shamshad TV

Type of death: Murdered

By: Taliban

Location: Kabul

Date: 1 July 2019

Name: Nader shah Sahibzada

Job: Presenter/producer, Radio (Voice of Gardiz)

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unkown

Location: Gardiz, Paktia province

Date: 13 July 2019

Name: Abdul Hamid Hotaki

Job: presenter at Hewad Radio

Type of death: mine blast

By: Taliban

Location: Kandahar Province

Date: 25 September 2019

Name:Waheed Mujda

Job:  writer and political analyst 

Type of death: assassination

By: unknown gunmen 

Location: Kabul city

Date: 20 November 2019

berny mugisha

Articles d’Hafiz Ahmad Miakhel

Facebook’s political censorship

Eight whistleblowers prosecuted under the Obama administration: Where are they now?

One month before the U.S midterm elections, Facebook deletes over 800 pages and accounts claiming they consistently displayed “spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

The 559 politically-oriented pages and 251 accounts were all American. Among the blocked pages are Nation in Distress, Right Wing News, Reasonable People Unite, and The Resistance.

Facebook explains this action in their official statement:

People need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook. It’s why we have a policy banning coordinated inauthentic behavior — networks of accounts or Pages working to mislead others about who they are, and what they are doing. This year, we’ve enforced this policy against many Pages, Groups and accounts created to stir up political debate, including in the US, the Middle East, Russia and the UK. But the bulk of the inauthentic activity we see on Facebook is spam that’s typically motivated by money, not politics. And the people behind it are adapting their behavior as our enforcement improves.

Although the First Amendment does not apply to private entities such as social media platforms, many of the owners of these pages claim unjust censorship. They contest Facebook’s silencing, claiming they were simply expressing political discourse and not infringing Facebook’s guidelines, according to the Guardian.

The Guidelines on censored hate speech are defined by Facebook as “a direct attack on people based on — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability.” They also define attack “as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.

The Pew Research Center demonstrates that, in the United States most social platform users are well aware of this online censorship linked to political agendas.

72 percent of the public thinks it is likely that social media platforms, such as Facebook, actively censor political views that those companies find objectionable.

« The study demonstrates slightly differing responses on censorship among political parties, with a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (85%) believing it is likely that social media companies engage in this behavior, with 54 percent indicating they find it very likely. A smaller share of Democrats – though still a majority, at 62 percent – also think it likely that social media companies engage in this behavior.

Nevertheless, users are surprisingly accepting of  this censorship– even those residing in countries where freedom of speech is paramount. However,  the data also suggests that in places such as Europe many users support Facebook monitoring their speech if it for the right cause, such as protecting minorities or monitoring fake content.

Despite a growing mistrust of big institutions including technology companies and media outlets, most Facebook users say it is still benefiting them personally to be on the platform. 74 percent of Americans say tech companies have had a positive impact on their lives, and 65 percent feel they’ve had a positive impact on the nation as a whole.

The constant influx of information, from its’ 2.13 billion users, makes it certainly hard for Facebook to monitor all its content. However, the dilemma extends beyond this technological constraint. In giving a powerful company the power to decide what should be censored can easily silence voices that deserve to be heard.

In April 2018 users gained the ability to file an appeal if they believe their content has been unfairly removed. That appeal is then sent to a new human moderator, who will issue a decision within 24 hours. However, this did not help the 800+ pages claiming injustice this past November.