Mahmoud Abou-Zeid, an Egyptian photojournalist known by his nickname Shawkan, appears before a judge in May for the first time after spending more than 600 days in prison in Cairo. Photograph: Lobna Tarek/AP
Journalists face unprecedented threats in Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi’s Egypt, a watchdog has said, with the highest number behind bars in the country since it began keeping records in 1990.
In a report detailing the incarceration of 18 Egyptians, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said on Thursday that most were accused of affiliation with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood of the ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
It said the threat of imprisonment in Egypt is part of a stifling atmosphere in which authorities pressure media outlets to censor critical voices and issue gag orders on sensitive topics. It said the president, Sisi, had invoked national security to trample on liberties.
“CPJ spoke to high-level officials, including the prosecutor general and the minister of transitional justice, who denied that Egypt was holding any journalists in jail in relation to their work,” the group said in the report, which was based on a census, taken on 1 June, of Egyptian prisons. “But CPJ research shows that the government of al-Sisi … has used the pretext of national security to crack down on human rights, including press freedom.”
As army chief, Sisi overthrew Morsi in 2013 during protests against his rule, before winning a landslide election last year. Since the overthrow, authorities have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents, killing hundreds, jailing thousands and sparking a backlash of attacks against security forces, mostly in the restive Sinai peninsula. Activists say dozens more journalists have been detained.
Ahmed Mansour, an al-Jazeera journalist, speaks to the press on Monday after leaving jail in Berlin, where he was detained on an Egyptian warrant. Photograph: Michael Sohn/AP
Cases detailed in the report show that most were jailed for covering protests, airing views contrary to the government or reporting on injustices committed against people affiliated with the Brotherhood, which Egypt considers a terrorist organisation. Several stand accused of “spreading chaos”, while others are charged with disseminating “false news” or anti-government messages.
In one case highlighted in the report, Mahmoud Abou-Zeid was arrested in August 2013 while taking photographs of the violent dispersal of a pro-Morsi sitin, in which hundreds of Islamists were killed. He has been in pre-trial detention since then and has not been formally charged.
“I spoke with him last week and he was tired and depressed,” said his brother, Mohamed. “We don’t know what will happen next and have no information regarding the future of the case. It is a very difficult situation for all of us.”
In another case, a photographer, Omar Abdel-Maksoud, was arrested in 2014 while covering a baby shower for a woman who had been detained and forced to give birth in a hospital in handcuffs. Police launched a violent raid on the gathering, the report said, citing local media.
CPJ cited cases of journalists disappearing into Egypt’s labyrinth of detention facilities without lawyers or family members knowing where they were, with court hearings sometimes taking place without their knowledge.
It said the heavy restrictions meant that scarce information emerged from entire regions, especially Sinai, where militant groups are fighting security forces and little was known about the conflict’s toll on civilians. One journalist from the area, Saeed Abuhaj, was arrested for carrying a leaflet bearing Brotherhood slogans, his lawyer said. He has been charged with inciting violence and using weapons against police.
Several high-profile cases involving the state’s campaign against journalists have attracted international attention, most recently that of Ahmed Mansour, a journalist for the Qatar-based broadcaster al-Jazeera, who was stopped in Germany when officers there acted on an Egyptian arrest warrant. After detaining him last weekend, German prosecutors decided on Monday to free him and not pursue his extradition to Egypt, where he was convicted in 2011 on torture charges he denies. CPJ and France’s Reporters Without Borders criticised the detention.
Al-Jazeera has been a particular focus for Egypt following Morsi’s overthrow, since the current government sees it as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood. Three journalists from its English-language channel are being retried on charges of being part of a terrorist group and airing falsified footage. One of the three, Australian journalist Peter Greste, has been deported.
An Egyptian journalist at a protest in Cairo last year calling for the release of Mahmoud Abou-Zeid (Shawkan). Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP
In the US, the administration of Barack Obama has criticised Egypt’s restrictions on free speech and the arrests of political dissidents, citing a “steadily shrinking space for political dissent”. But Washington has continued to provide Cairo with $1.3bn (£830m) in annual military aid after briefly suspending it following Morsi’s ousting.
Egypt’s first freely elected president, Morsi was recently sentenced to death in connection with a mass prison break during the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
An Egyptian journalist not cited in the report said he and others, especially videographers and photographers, are regularly targeted when they cover Brotherhood-affiliated protests. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.
“They raided my family’s apartment looking for me six times since 2013, and this month they smashed up a lot of furniture,” he said, adding that he has been staying with friends. “My work is a blessing and a curse – I’m living on the run.”