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Union head imprisoned in Egypt for harbouring wanted journalists

November 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm

Media workers gather in front of the Journalists Union building to protest against restrictions placed on them in Cairo, Egypt on 19 November 2016 [Mohamed El Raai /Anadolu]

The head of the journalists’ union and two of its board members were sentenced to two years in prison by an Egyptian court on Saturday. Yahia Qalash, Khaled Al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel-Rahim were also fined $650 after a seven-month trial for harbouring two wanted journalists. This is the first time in the union’s 75-year history that such a thing has happened.

In April last year, security forces raided the union’s headquarters to arrest journalists wanted for protesting against President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s decision to transfer sovereignty of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Instead, Qalash and his colleagues were detained and charged with harbouring the wanted men. The arrests triggered more protests demanding the interior minister’s resignation and a presidential apology.

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the sentences and called on the authorities to ensure that journalists are able to work without “fear of reprisal”. Dozens of journalists staged a sit-in outside the union when the verdict was announced. A heavy security presence was deployed amid calls for yet more demonstrations.

Also on Saturday, another court in Egypt sentenced three TV presenters in absentia to three years in prison for spreading “false news”, disturbing public safety and inciting sectarian tension. Mohammed Nasser, Moatz Matar and Hisham Abdullah have been vocal critics of Al-Sisi. Their shows appeared on El-Sharq network, which is said to be financed by Qatar and broadcast from Turkey. Both countries condemned the military coup which brought Al-Sisi to power, and have given refuge to leaders and members of the now-banned (in Egypt) Muslim Brotherhood.

The crackdown on the media and freedom of speech in Egypt has intensified since Al-Sisi led the coup in 2013. Many journalists and TV hosts have been banned or had their shows cancelled.