Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. He is a Palestine Pulse columnist for Al-Monitor.
The trip was routine for me. I have been to Egypt many times — during the Hosni Mubarak era, the Arab Spring protests, the short-lived Mohamed Morsi period, and a number of times during the current military rule of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
But this time was different. When I arrived at the Cairo airport on Dec. 12, a person holding a sign with my name on it met me before passport control. I had been invited to attend a conference organized by a U.S. evangelical organization and its Egyptian counterpart. The invitation listed the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of Egypt as the patron of the event, which was aimed at dealing with issues of transparency in Christian institutions, hardly a controversial issue in Egyptian politics.
As I had done it so many times, I gave the officer my passport. After an initial check, he stamped me in, only to take a second look at the screen in front of him and reverse himself. He crossed out the entry stamp and asked me to wait. Ten hours later, I was denied entry and asked to take the next plane back to where I came from.
This Egypt, under the military strongman Sissi, is not the country I knew and visited so many times. The Vienna-based International Press Institute, of which I am vice chair, says that 61 Egyptian journalists are currently imprisoned in the country. The institute notes that the past three months have seen the most arrests of journalists since Sissi’s rise to power in 2014. Since the beginning of September, Egypt has arrested least 25 journalists, making it one of the world’s top-three jailers of journalists and people working in media in 2019.
Last month, authorities arrested Shady Zalat, a journalist working for the respected online publication Mada Masr. Egyptian security forces then raided the outlet’s Cairo office on Nov. 24 and detained three staff members, including the chief editor. They were taken for questioning and later released.
"Plainclothes security forces have raided Mada Masr's office in Cairo. Staff are currently being held inside, and their phones have been switched off," Mada Masr wrote on Twitter shortly after the raid. Thousands of Egyptian sites, including Mada Masr, have been blocked at some point. The high profile of Mada Masr and its editor, Lina Attalah, likely helped ensure that those detained were later released, unlike many other Egyptian journalists who have been imprisoned for much longer.
As the IPI notes, Ismail Alexandrani was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for his journalism and spent more than 1,400 days in detention. Journalist and cameraman Abdullah Shousha has been detained for more than six years. Mahmoud Hussein of Qatar-based Al Jazeera has spent three years in prison without trial. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have broken off diplomatic relations with Qatar since 2017 and have implemented a blockade on the tiny Gulf country.
Egypt is one of Washington’s strongest allies in the region. Another strong ally, Saudi Arabia, is accused of brutally murdering Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The Trump administration’s silence in response to these anti-democratic acts has an enormous chilling effect on freedom of press, and on the rights of people in Egypt and the region.
Democracy dies in silence in every part of the world where media freedom is not respected and violators get a free ride. The impunity that persists gives dictators the ability to gag opposing points of view, keep their own people in the dark and carry out policies without checks or balances.
For years, the United States and its First Amendment have been used by many of us journalists as a shining example of media freedom. While the American media continues to provide journalistic accountability and a platform for different points of view, the executive branch has failed to reflect the values of media freedom. When President Trump called members of the media who were critical of him “the enemy of the people,” dictators around the world were the first to take note and use such rhetoric to justify their actions against their own media critics.
After 10 hours of waiting, I was able to return to my work in Jordan, where I run a nongovernmental organization that supports local community media. While I am safe and able to work freely, many others around the world suffer from legal limitations, security restrictions and reprisals. The time has come to end the impunity of those who restrict, imprison and kill journalists simply because of what they do. Journalism is not a crime — and no respected country or administration should give dictators a free pass to commit human rights violations and shut down the free press.