Media prevented from covering Press Syndicate leaders' trial

Saturday 04-06-2016 11:44 AM

The head of the Journalists' Syndicate Yehia al-Qalash on May 1, 2016 after police stormed the syndicate and arrested two journalists. (ASWAT MASRIYA/ Mohamed el Raai)

CAIRO, June 4 (Aswat Masriya) - The Qasr el-Nil court prevented journalists from entering the court session of the head of the Press Syndicate, Yehia Qallash and senior board members Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abd al-Reheem on Saturday.

The syndicate leaders were summoned by Egyptian prosecution on May 29 and questioned for over 14 hours.

The three leading syndicate members are accused of "harbouring fugitives", in reference to the two journalists arrested from inside the syndicate on May 1, and spreading false news.

An eye-witness told Aswat Masriya that security forces told the journalists waiting outside the court that they would be prevented from entering. She added that a few journalists managed to make it inside the courtroom nonetheless.

A high security presence was maintained within the proximity of the courtroom. The three syndicate leaders arrived to the courtroom at 9 am. Cairo prosecution referred the three journalists to court last Monday.

On May 1, security forces raided the syndicate’s building to arrest two journalists accused of “inciting protests” against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to hand over control over two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

The two journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Saqqa, had been at the syndicate’s headquarters when police arrested them. They both work for the Yanayir Gate news website.

On its part, the interior ministry denied in a statement that security forces had stormed the building or used any kind of force.

Qallash, Balshy and Abd al-Reheem had first refused to pay the bail conditioned for their release, which amounted to EGP 10,000. However, co-founder of the Popular Current Party Tarek Nageeda paid the bail on their behalf.

The front to defend journalists and freedoms announced it was holding a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the current situation of the Press Syndicate in light of what they referred to as the "policy of punishment adopted by the regime against the Egyptian press."

An emergency general assembly meeting at the Press Syndicate is also being planned.

Former Judge Refaat al-Saeed said that the "harbouring fugitives" charge against the three Syndicate leaders could lead them to face a prison sentence of up to three years or to pay a fine, as stipulated by Egypt's penal code.

Spreading false news, on the other hand, could only lead to a fine of EGP 5,000-EGP 20,000, as the penal code has excluded journalists from imprisonment on this charge.

"The elements of the crime of harbouring fugitives is missing in the case as the journalists in question have not been convicted by a court as yet," al-Saeed said.

Lawyer Amir Salem told Aswat Masriya that the prosecution's decision to impose a bail on Qallash, Balshy and Abd al-Reheem is a "blow to the law of criminal procedures and the constitution", adding that the goal was to intimidate media workers and subject them to "iron fist" policies.  

Activist and lawyer Negad al-Borai said that the judicial authorities sought to subject the syndicate to investigation instead of investigating the syndicate's complaints, adding that the situation is "shocking".

The House of Representatives had requested from its media and culture committee to prepare a comprehensive report about the conflict and to hold meetings with the two parties, however the attempts were unsuccessful in calming the rising tension between the syndicate and the interior ministry.

Amnesty International called the arrest of the Egyptian Press Syndicate's head and two board members "an alarming setback for freedom of expression" and described the storming of the syndicate as "the most brazen attack on the media the country witnessed in decades."  

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