Prisoners of opinion in the shadow of the pyramids
Prisoners of opinion in the shadow of the pyramids
Thursday, June 26,2008 19:03

Reporters Without Borders is urging foreign holidaymakers planning to visit Egypt this summer to reflect about some of the harsh realities of life behind the scenes in the country of the Pharaohs.
The country hosted 11 million tourists in 2007, beating an historic record. But that same year, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman ("Kareem Amer"), aged 22, was sentenced to four years in prison because of articles he posted on his blog, beating another kind of record: Kareem Amer was the first blogger to be convicted for his activity online and his jail sentence was the longest.
Kareem Amer will on 28 June mark his 600th day in Borg el Arab prison, which is situated around 40 kilometres from Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt is ranked 146th out of 169 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ latest worldwide press freedom index and also appears on its list of “Internet Enemies”.
“If you go into a cyber-café, you won’t find it hard to access the websites you want. The Internet is hardly filtered at all, but the authorities monitor very closely any publications referring to religion and politics (particularly websites mentioning the banned Muslim Brotherhood). Egyptian bloggers know the risks they run when they post anything critical online and the harassment they suffer often pushes them into shutting down their blogs. Moreover there is no legal recourse for the owner of a blocked website”, writes the world press freedom organisation for the information of anyone wanting to visit Egypt this summer.

“Remember that shortly before your arrival, at least 300 people were arrested for going on strike and protesting in the streets of the capital and in working class cities north of Cairo. Don’t be surprised not to find all the television channels you expected. The semi-public Egyptian operator Nilesat has removed privately-owned al-Hiwar from its package without explanation. Information ministries of Arab countries have since 12 February 2008 adopted a policy that restricts broadcast freedom of satellite channels and provides for sanctions in case of offensive programme content. Among the souvenirs you take home with you, remember that, 22-year-old student Kareem Amer has been imprisoned for at least 600 days simply for what he wrote on his blog”, the organisation added.
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Where to visit?
Egypt’s capital and also one of the cities with the largest media concentration, particularly the regional offices of Qatar-based satellite TV al-Jazeera, whose journalists are among the most threatened in the country. One of its journalists and a cameraman were arrested in January 2008, while reporting on physical abuse and social problems suffered by agricultural workers south-west of Cairo. Their footage was seized without explanation. Another journalist, owner of the Egyptian broadcast agency Cairo News Company (CNC), was charged in May for putting out footage of demonstrations in the north of the country in April without official permission. He is above all guilty of working with al-Jazeera, to which he sometimes contributed news reports. The editor of the independent weekly al-Dustour, Ibrahim Issa, was sentenced to six months in prison on 26 March 2008, after he was convicted of “broadcasting false reports likely to cause a breach of public order and to damage the country’s reputation”.
One of the country’s most historic cities. It will also provide the setting on 17-19 July 2008 of one of the most significant gatherings for free expression, Wikimania. Internet-users from round the world will flock there to promote the exchange of worldwide news and content via the Internet. Kareem Amer, regrettably renowned for having criticised President Hosni Mubarak on his blog, is imprisoned in the neighbouring village of Borg el Arab. He was sentenced to four years in prison on 22 February 2007 for “inciting hatred of Islam” and insulting the Egyptian president.

The main movers behind the spring demonstrations have also served time there for organising a general strike to protest against a surge in the cost of living, with protests held in the streets of the capital on 6 April. The demonstrations were organised chiefly online, the “6 April group” using the social networking site Facebook to drum up support for the strike. They had recruited up to 64,000 members by the eve of the protests.
Two people behind the strike suffered badly at the hands of the authorities. One of them was imprisoned for more than two weeks while the other was tortured by police to get the password to the website so as to get access to its content and delete it all.
Is it easy to take photos/video film?
There are six million Internet-users in Egypt and its blogosphere is one of the most active in the Middle East. Journalist Waël Abbas in January 2007 broadcast video film showing police torturing detainees and in an unprecedented move it was used as evidence in a trial which resulted in one of the officers being sent to prison for three years.
However during the April strikes, blogger Kareem el-Beheiri was arrested while filming protests in front of the textile company where he worked. He was held for 73 days in Borg el Arab prison, during which time his employer sacked him for “absenteeism”.