The crackdown on journalists by the Egyptian authorities is a cynical attempt to provide cover for the much wider wave of arrests of Islamists and secular human rights activists that is reversing the democratic gains of the country’s ”Spring”. Despite the attempted news blackout, worrying reports are emerging of widespread brutality and even torture in police stations and prisons . The once-notoriously brutal police are reverting to type.
The latest arrests of secularist protesters has increased criticism of the army-backed authorities by many of those who supported the decision to remove President Mohammed Morsi last July and who had turned a blind eye to state repression of his Islamist supporters.
Some 20 journalists have now been charged with tarnishing the country's reputation abroad and helping Morsi's now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them are staffers for the Qatari-based pan-Arabic Al Jazeera network, targeted because Qatar has acted as a safe haven for Brotherhood activists.
The crackdown is having a chilling wider effect on reporting by stoking public suspicion of journalists – many international journalists have also been threatened either by police or pro-government demonstrators for being willing to challenge the latter’s narrative. A number have been beaten up in the street.
One Dutch reporter Rena Netjes, has been forced to leave Egypt after hearing that she was accused of belonging to what the authorities are calling Al Jazeera's Muslim Brotherhood cell. Ms Netjes had previously spent a night in jail after a Cairo cafe owner detained her in a citizen's arrest on suspicion of "spreading European culture" and endangering Egypt's security by looking for subjects to interview about youth unemployment. It is a story that is all too typical of the new climate.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has urged the government to “release all journalists imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities in exercise of their fundamental human rights.”