1 October 2017

Egypt: When Anti-Terrorism Laws Are Used to Sacrifice Free Speech

Photo: HRW.org
A satellite photograph of Scorpion Prison taken in September 2016

Anti-terrorism laws are sometimes used to muzzle the media. Journalists Denis Nkwebo in Cameroon and Mohanad El Sangary in Egypt detail the challenges they and their colleagues face in trying to navigate deliberately opaque laws and not land in prison.

Anti-terrorism laws were enacted in 2013 in Egypt and in 2014 in Cameroon. And one of the things that Denis Nkwebo and Mohanad El Sangary said to each other was how surprisingly similar their situations were.

In both countries the laws' provisions are criticised for being too broadly worded, for carrying the death sentence as the maximum penalty, and for allowing those accused of terrorism to be detained indefinitely. Cameroon's law says citizens can be tried in military court; in Egypt, citizens can be tried either before a military or a special court.

A climate of fear

In Cameroon, journalists have been arrested under terrorism charges because they either reported on Boko Haram, or on the unrest in the Anglophone regions where some residents feel they are treated as second class citizens and do not enjoy the same rights as Cameroonians in the French-speaking regions.

Denis Nkwebo is based in Douala where he is the deputy editor-in-chief of the French daily, Le Jour. He is also the President of the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union and a member of the Steering Committee of the Federation of African Journalists.

"Under section seven of the [anti-terrorism] law... if you fail to denounce to the authorities those planning a public demonstration, you could face charges," says Nkwebo.

Eleven journalists working in the north-western and south-western Anglophone regions have been arrested and only one, Awah Thomas, still remains in custody.

This climate of fear has made journalists including those living in Francophone areas less willing to cover what is going on in the English-speaking regions.

In both Cameroon and Egypt, it is an offence to report anything that contradicts the government's statements, or that of the military.

"Journalists are harassed. Many media owners have been stopped from airing programmes on what is happening in that part [of Cameroon]," Nkwebo comments.

Mohanad El Sangary is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. He is one of the few journalists willing to come and speak on our show and give his name. In addition to the anti-terrorism law that has installed an atmosphere of fear in Egypt, there is a nationwide state of emergency in place which also allows the government to censor the media before publication.

"The government has blocked more than 420 news website in Egypt," explains El Sangary. "They have stopped some newspapers from circulating, [like] Daily News Egypt, the only newspaper printed in English, under the pretence that the owner is [a member of the] Muslim Brotherhood."

A game of cat and mouse to escape jail

To circumvent such stringent rules, Egyptians use VPN websites. But El Sangary says it is "a game of cat and mouse" because the government keeps blocking the VPN. More often than not, he says, people follow journalists on social media to keep abreast of the news. Twitter and Facebook are the preferred platforms.

"News outlets like Mada Masr find creative ways to fight the blockade. So they publish their articles on their Facebook page. But unless there is a political change on the ground, there isn't going to be a real solution," El Sangany explains.

In Cameroon as well as in Egypt, journalists do not trust the judiciary to uphold the rule of law.

"In Cameroon, [there is] the case of Ahmed Abba. He was brought in front of a military court. At no point in time was the judiciary able to bring evidence against him. But he [got] ten years.

"We are very afraid of the trend the judiciary is taking in this country. It is not the place of the journalists to face a military court!" Nkwebo exclaims.

In Egypt, El Sangary describes a more complex situation where part of the judiciary is controlled by the government and part is not, and where others are governed by what the journalist describes as their ideologies.

Solidarity is the answer to oppression

Answering a question posed by Nkwebo, El Sangary says that working together on a continental scale could be a solution to put a stop to such oppression.

"We need to organise ourselves in groups and unions [that can] lobby freedom of speech in Africa. Of course, it is going to be dangerous because of our governments. But we can, at least, try to find publishing venues to support each other. And if a journalist in Cameroon goes missing, then everyone in Africa, in the world, knows he or she went missing."

El Sangary wanted to know whether the anti-terror laws are really effective in fighting back terrorism in Cameroon. Nkwebo does not believe this is the case.

"These laws have never stopped Boko Haram. It has simply stopped journalists from going to the field. I, personally, have stopped travelling to the far North [to cover Boko Haram] because you don't know what happens to you if you go there," says Nkwebo.

"In my case, I was assault on orders from the ministry of defence," he adds.

Not giving up

When journalists work under such a climate of repression, when their lives are in danger, when self-censorship becomes a method of survival, how do they find the inspiration to continue doing the work and not give up?

For Nwebo: "We are permanently negotiating with some authorities to be allowed to do our work. It is an obligation for each and every journalist to defend the truth... to go wherever there is need for information, whatever the risks may be."

For El Sangary: "The reason I write is to make a difference. We write out of hope and hope trumps fear."

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