NEWS of a court’s order to release Egyptian journalist Mahmoud Hussein will come as a relief to many. His family, friends, and his colleagues at Al Jazeera have been campaigning for his freedom for years. Since his arrest in 2016, when he was picked up at the Cairo airport, the Doha-based news network has stood steadfast behind their colleague. No official charges had been levelled against him, but authorities accused him of “incitement against state institutions and broadcasting false news with the aim of spreading chaos” — an allegation refuted and condemned by his organisation. Mr Hussein spend 881 days behind prison bars without a trial. According to human rights activists, there are approximately 20,000 people languishing without trial in prisons across the country for politically motivated reasons, and the Committee to Protect Journalists once labelled Egypt “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”. After the Arab Spring blossomed in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and protesters who took to the streets to topple dictatorships spoke of greater freedoms, democracy and equality, few would have expected even more repressive regimes to occupy the power vacuums left behind. Bloggers and social media users played a big role in the ouster of the Mubarak regime, but the present Egyptian parliament has approved three controversial media regulation laws to closely monitor social media activity, which journalists and human rights bodies have decried as further press curtailment.
Many journalists operate in an environment of great fear and censorship, and anything that does not fit the official state narrative — or goes against the interests of other, dangerous, groups — is punished. According to the IPI, a global network of media personnel, almost 60 journalists have been killed across the world since last May. Many are behind bars. While Egypt has been ranked as one of the worst countries for journalists, the repression, suspicion and scapegoating of the press can be seen in many parts of the world, with organised smear campaigns orchestrated or outright force employed to delegitimise critical voices.
Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2019c