Skip to main content

Egypt's jailed local reporters don't make it to world headlines

Few care about the growing harassment and persecution of Egyptian journalists, now that a white man is no longer one of the victims

I have reported from civil wars, insurgencies, on natural disasters and from inside dictatorships. I have always marvelled at the bravery and stoicism of ordinary people, but the local journalists who tell the truth about brutal regimes hold a place of honour.

For even the bravest Western journalists it is by comparison easy. They stay in the country for a few days or weeks and then go home. If it gets too dangerous they quit.

This is not a criticism. But the fact remains that they do not live with the consequences of their reporting. Because local journalists continue to live in their country they are open to reprisals from local warlords, oligarchs and security services. They (and their families) get threatened and too often they get killed, often in a very horrible way.

The disparity is made far worse by the fact that the world places a special value on the lives of Western journalists. When they get killed or badly injured it is often headline news. Not so for local reporters.

I have recently been involved with one example of this double standard: Egypt. It is well known that on 29 December 2013 Peter Greste and two Al Jazeera colleagues were arrested, charged and jailed, even though they had done nothing wrong apart from report the news.

I joined scores of foreign reporters who campaigned to set them free. We held a press conference; a statement was issued; we met an Egyptian diplomat at the Frontline Club in West London.

President Obama demanded their release. So did British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, the Australian prime minister and a host of media personalities and celebrities: Larry King, Piers Morgan, Stephen Fry, Mia Farrow, Naomi Klein, Bianca Jagger, Christiane Amanpour.

Greste was in due course let out of jail and returned to his native Australia. His colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed had to wait several more months. Because they had Islamic names, they were a much smaller part of the international campaign (Peter Greste later pointed out on Irish radio that he received more support than his Irish-Egyptian cellmate Ibrahim Halawa “because my name was Peter, not Ibrahim”). However in due course Fahmy and Mohamed were awarded a presidential pardon by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and freed as well.

Naturally we were all delighted, and I remain proud of my very minor role in the Al Jazeera campaign. Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed, who suffered terribly in Egypt’s overcrowded and unhygienic jails, are brave and honourable men. They are not open to criticism.

Nevertheless something worries me profoundly about this case. There are still plenty of Egyptian journalists in President Sisi’s jails. Their situation has not got better. In fact it has deteriorated. More reporters are in jail, conditions harder and attacks on freedom of speech far more intense.

The facts are indisputable. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a dozen reporters (included the Al Jazeera three) were in Egyptian jails at the end of 2014, at the height of our agitation. That number, according to the CPJ, has doubled since. The CPJ also told me that this is the worst time to be a journalist in Egypt since 1991. According to the Arab Media Freedom Monitor (Ikshef), which defines the term journalist in a less rigorous way, the real number was 89 at the end of April this year. Whichever way you count the numbers, it has got much, much worse.

That is why at the start of May I spoke at another press conference at the Frontline Club, this one organised by the Arab Media Freedom Monitor. Our purpose was to draw attention to Egyptian government brutality against local journalists following a devastating regime clampdown over the previous few weeks.

I couldn’t help making the comparison with our Frontline Club press conference to publicise the plight of Peter Greste. That press conference was standing room only and the club was sweaty with TV cameras, and there was heavy media coverage the following day.

By contrast the most recent press conference was sparsely attended – and completely unreported. It was as if it was held in a vacuum.

The world was rightly concerned for Peter Greste. But why aren’t the same politicians and celebrities campaigning for Mahmoud “Shawkan” Abou Zheid, arrested in August 2013? He has consistently been denied access to medication, despite suffering from Hepatitis C.

In an unbearably sad letter written to mark his 600th day in jail, Abou Zheid wrote simply: “I am dying.”

Why are we not intervening on behalf of Rassd journalist Abdullah al-Fakharny who was also arrested in August 2013? Writing for Middle East Eye from his Egyptian jail, al-Fakharny wrote last year: “The world would remember Western journalists … would rise to protest those journalists' imprisonment, spread their news and press for their release.”

Mahmoud Abou Zheid and Abdullak al-Fakharny are just two among many cases. The life of an Egyptian journalist is worth exactly the same as a Western journalist. The only explanation of this blatant double standard is racism. 

Few care about the growing harassment and persecution of Egyptian journalists, now that a white man is no longer one of the victims. This should make all of us Western reporters feel ashamed.

- Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year 2016 by the Online Media Awards for an article he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

Additional research by Jemima McCrystal. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Egyptian photojournalists raise their cameras during a demonstration outside the Syndicate headquarters in Cairo on 3 May, 2016 (AFP).