Journalist Basma Mostafa is still trying to digest the hell of the last few months. Last October he traveled to southern Luxor with the task of covering the death of a young man during a police raid. She had barely set foot in the bus station when she was arrested and interrogated for days. The persecution that he has experienced since then sheds light on the practices of persecution, surveillance, threats, and jail that journalists suffer ten years after freedom of the press dreamed of in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
They were waiting for me at the station. It was an ambush. I have not forgotten the feelings of panic, fear, and confusion. I spent the next 24 hours in National Security blindfolded. They interrogated me up to four times he tells Mostafa, who has just gone into exile. The first thing one of the officials told me was, ‘We apologize for the arrest, but we know how to deal better with a terrorist who carries weapons than with a journalist with a pen.’ They asked me about my journalistic work. When I got to the building from security, they slapped me and someone grabbed my hair tightly. They wanted my mobile and laptop passwords.
During the last years, Mostafa had worked in the strongholds of independent journalism, in the midst of a hostile panorama marked by the tight control of the media by the security apparatus. His journalistic investigations have tried to shed light on the brutal death of Giulio Regeni, a young Italian who was tortured to death by security officials; the death at the police station of two young Egyptians and the virginity tests to which the witnesses of the misdeeds committed by the “Egyptian herd”, a group of upper-classmen, were subjected in a luxurious hotel in Cairo.
The Prosecutor’s Office accused her of “spreading false news”, “misuse of social networks” and “belonging to a terrorist organization”. “They ended up transferring me to the State Security Prosecutor’s Office. They advised me to respond briefly but I decided to speak up and face the accusations. I thought that denying my work added more repression and injustice to what journalists in Egypt already suffer,” he slides. The Public Ministry issued her provisional detention for 15 days and Mostafa was transferred to the women’s prison in Qanater, north of Cairo.
A CELL WITH 80 WOMEN
They assigned me a cell in which there were at least 80 women. When I arrived, they all slept on the floor, wedged together so that there was enough space. I stepped on their bodies by mistake because it was impossible to find a place,” recalls Mostafa, released shortly after. “At that time I was thinking of my friend Solafa, also imprisoned.” Solara Magdy is one of the thirty Egyptian journalists behind bars. Arrested in a cafe in November 2019 with her husband and a friend – both journalists Magdy was tortured during interrogations. On his last visit, at the end of January, his family reported his precarious physical condition after a hemorrhage caused by a forced gynecological examination.
Egyptian journalism is at its worst, admits Khaled el Balshy, editor of Al Badeel, a digital that adds to the list of half a thousand web pages whose access has been blocking the Egyptian dictatorship for years. Before the January 2011 revolution, there was a small space for press freedom. Now it no longer exists. Anyone who publishes an uncomfortable comment is arrested and their media confiscated. They are trying to impose public silence,” the journalist details.
The hopes for a free press that emerged ten years ago in Tahrir Square after the 18 days of protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak have been buried under a regime that is among the main predators of journalists on the planet, with a constant campaign of harassment and reporter surveillance affecting Egyptians and foreigners. The jaws even reach the memory of the riots. In late January, authorities arrested Ashraf Hamdi a YouTuber dedicated to animation, broadcast on its channel after a commemorative video of the revolution.
CALCULATED ARREST STRATEGY
Ten years ago the Egyptian people overthrew the Mubarak regime during an Arab Spring that demanded greater freedom. Today, on the other hand, the Al Sisi government arrests journalists who remember that historic anniversary argues Sherif Mansur, coordinator of the Protection Committee of Journalists in the Middle East. The organization denounces a calculated strategy of incarceration, digital censorship, surveillance, and criminalization of journalists under a draconian succession of laws that claim to combat terrorism or fake news.
In recent years, while Egyptian tornadoes closed down and persecuted journalists, security agencies have acquired ownership of the mainstream media by dictating their information. Almost all the press today is pro-government and is limited to issuing state statements. The challenge now is to survive, admits El Bolshy. The once-powerful journalists’ union is today chaired by Diaa Rashwan, who also heads the State Information Service, the body under the Egyptian presidency that monitors the work of foreign correspondents. “The union is ‘de facto’ suspended. It has suffered a violent attack and no longer defends journalists or journalism in general, adds El Bolshy.
A deep depression surrounds journalists today who, taking all risks, try to resist. Many, those who avoided jail, gave up long ago and embraced exile. “I have decided to leave Egypt for a while because I felt that jail was not only being behind bars but also still on the street. This is how I felt when security officials visited my house. I have two young daughters and I do not want them to destroy their lives. “Mostafa confesses. “Ten years ago it was the revolution that pushed me to leave my family home in the countryside and become a journalist. There was a revolution of words parallel to the riots themselves that no longer exists. Journalism now faces the most ferocious attack”, concludes.