New York — Egyptian authorities should immediately release journalists Hamdi al-Zaeem and Ahmed Khalifa and drop all charges against them, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On January 4, authorities arrested al-Zaeem, a freelance photojournalist and documentary film producer, after raiding his home in Cairo, according to news reports and the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, a Europe-based human rights group. On January 6, while in detention, al-Zaeem tested positive for COVID-19 and was transferred to a hospital in Cairo's al-Abasseya district to quarantine, according to news reports.
On January 16, the state prosecutor's office charged al-Zaeem with spreading false news and joining a terrorist organization, and ordered him to be detained for 15 days pending trial, according to those reports.
Separately, on January 6, Khalifa, a freelance reporter who recently contributed to the local independent news websites Masr360 and Al-Manassa, turned himself in at a police station in Fayoum governorate, southwest of Cairo, after authorities raided his home in his absence earlier that day and told his family that the journalist was wanted for questioning, according to Masr360 and news reports.
Today, the state prosecutor's office also charged Khalifa with spreading false news and joining a terrorist organization, and ordered him to be detained for 15 days pending trial, according to a Facebook post by his lawyer, Nabeh al-Ganadi.
Authorities have not disclosed the motives for the journalists' arrests, according to those news reports and two local journalists who are following al-Zaeem and Khalifa's cases, who spoke with CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. CPJ was unable to determine where either journalist is being held.
"Instead of releasing journalists detained without trial during a global pandemic, Egyptian authorities keep overcrowding prisons with more members of the press - including now one who was sick with COVID-19," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. "Egyptian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release journalists Hamdi al-Zaeem and Ahmed Khalifa and drop all charges against them."
The day before his arrest, Khalifa covered worker protests at a local chemical plant, which the local journalists said may have prompted his arrest.
Al-Zaeem was previously arrested while interviewing people for a documentary film in December 2016, and was then charged with joining a terrorist organization, spreading false news, harming national unity, and inciting a protest without a permit, according to news reports and the local journalists, who said that his recent arrest may be related to that case, as the journalist was released in 2018 but is still required to report to police weekly.
CPJ emailed the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice for comment but did not receive any immediate responses.
As of December 1, 2020, there were at least 27 journalists behind bars in Egypt for their work, according to CPJ's most recent prison census. Most were being held without convictions, as authorities repeatedly renew their pretrial detention periods to keep them in prison.