Photojournalists in peril: The curious case of Shawkan

Toqa Ezzidin
12 Min Read
Abou Zeid, commonly known as Shawkan, is suffering from Hepatitis-C, according to his mother. She said that, whilst the 27-year-old suffered from the disease prior to his detention, he has been denied appropriate medical treatment. (Photo Courtesy of Official Freedom for Shawkan Campaign page.)

Following more than 850 days in remand, Photojournalist Mahmoud Abou-Zeid, better known as Shawkan, will stand trial on 12 December in the case of “Rabaa sit-in dispersal” after being held in pretrial detention for over two years, which does not comply with Egypt’s penal code.

According to various photojournalists, photojournalism has always suffered in Egypt but after Rabaa sit-in dispersal in 2013, the situation has got much worse and assaults on photojournalists have dramatically increased.

There has been no response or action taken whatsoever, despite the several solidarity campaigns that were launched by the Press Syndicate, the support Shawkan and other detained journalists receive from the international community, and the calls for their immediate release.

Around 32 journalists are behind bars, 18 out of whom were arrested during field reporting, according to head of the Press Syndicate freedoms committee Khaled El-Balshy.

The detention of Shawkan and other journalists raised concerns about the freedom of expression in Egypt. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other international institutions are also concerned with human rights and freedom of expression and press.

What it means to be a photojournalist in Egypt

“Whenever we prepare to report something from the field, we are always expecting to die, be arrested, or injured. Least of all, we expect our equipment will be confiscated,” Photojournalist Alaa El-Kamhawi told Daily News Egypt.

He said, as a photojournalist, he hears the words “photography is banned here” more than he does “good morning”. When photojournalists are reporting on a clash, no one will want them to document the events with their cameras because both parties of conflict mostly make extreme violations.

“During the 25 January Revolution in 2011, people were helping us to document the revolution. Even foreign photojournalists were being helped and it was called ‘the photo revolution’. Four years after the uprising, everything changed; most people interrogate us when they see the camera,” El-Kamhawi said.

Photojournalists are always targeted by all parties and in the middle of all of it; they are only trying to capture one photo to document the event. People might also assault photojournalists if they do not have their same affiliation and break their equipment.

In most cases, the police confiscate their cameras and take the memory card. It is usually over by then and it is as if they documented nothing at all, which makes their job a lot harder.

“In the office I worked at, there is not a single person who was not injured; all of us have marks of assault we undergo during reporting and photographing,” El-Kamhawi said. “These circumstances are even more difficult for girls and women but they never fear doing their duty and they are more courageous and competent most of their male counterparts”.

He cannot recall one time when a photojournalist gave up their job because their friends were injured or killed. On the contrary, the job has attracted more people and most of them now are youths and fresh graduates who are full of energy and will not be threatened by threats of arrest.

El-Kamhawi was injured twice in his leg, once when he was covering a clash in Kasr Al-Eini and was injured by a cartouche and the other injury occurred during Rabaa sit-in dispersal with a bullet. Both injuries did not cause severe side effects and they were both caused by police forces.

Renowned journalist Mosa’ab El-Shamy told Daily News Egypt that being a photojournalist in Egypt means that your presence is not welcomed by all parties of conflict. “We work in an environment full of danger, without any suitable financial rewards or protection from journalistic organisations,” El-Shamy said.

The press syndicate does not support photojournalists either because of its unfair standards of supporting only protect journalists who are enrolled. “Being a photojournalist in Egypt means you allow yourself or your equipment to be assaulted from the start. It end – if you are not lucky –with an arrested or by getting killed,” El-Shamy said.

There were not more than 5-10 photojournalists in the Rabaa sit-in did not exceed because most of them were covering from the police forces side or because they were assaulted by the police.

“After the Rabaa sit-in dispersal, the photojournalists’ situation worsened. There were many times when photojournalists who were covering the dispersal were directly targeted by security force or by citizens,” he said.

Photojournalists at Al-Masry Al-Youm Mahmoud Abdel-Ghany and Mohammed Fathi told Daily News Egypt that the possibility of being arrested during covering a clash is always present.

“Since I’m working in a news organisation, I am always expecting that they will protect me if something ever happened. However, I did not exclude the possibility that someday I might face the same consequences as Shawkan,” Abdel-Ghany said.

Abdel-Ghany was covering Al-Nahda sit-in dispersal in 2013 and he said there was random shooting from both sides and photojournalists were caught up in the middle. “Most people used to have cameras around all the time, now people are afraid of it,” Abdel-Ghany said.

It does not matter on which side you stand while trying to cover the events, the danger will be there in all cases but mostly it is safer to cover form the side of the police and security forces.

“Being a photojournalist means that you are targeted by all the parties of dispute. If you are a freelancer, this makes your job a thousand times more difficult because you do not have an organisation to defend you in the case of an arrest,” he said.

“Our equipment was confiscated on several occasions but what always made it pass is that our affiliated organisations supported us even. There was a time when we did not have anything to prove that we were working there,” Fathi said.

Shawkan’s situation is difficult because he is a freelancer and in Egypt we do not really comprehend the meaning of freelancing and it makes the situation worse, Fathi said. He cannot say for sure if Shawkan’s situation could have been any better if he was working for a national news organisation, but the arrest should be condemned in all cases.

Shawkan’s chamber of despair

“Shawkan is desperate; he has no hope whatsoever to get out of detention. We, his family, have no hope as well. There’s nothing left to be done that we have not already tried,” Shawkan’s brother Mohammed Abou-Zeid told Daily News Egypt.

Mohamed said that predicting the result of the trial session is very difficult and the situation is not really giving them any hope because they have already tried doing everything. Legal actions were taken due to Shawkan’s unfair detention but there was no response whatsoever.

“We live in a state of ‘no law’. Shawkan’s health is severely deteriorating. When we told the authorities that he suffers from hepatitis C, they only took some tests and scanning. However, they did not provide him with any medication,” Mohamed said.

Shawkan is aware of the support he receives from the international community, the Press Syndicate, and other journalists but this is not easing his despair, Mohamed said. He almost knows for sure that he is not getting out of Torah Prison.

El-Shamy said there is an obvious stubbornness against Shawkan in particular because all evidence that proves his presence in Rabaa during the sit-in dispersal were presented to court. Not only is he unfairly detained but, after more than two years in detention, he is going to stand trial instead of being released.

El-Kamhawi said all journalists who were arrested during the dispersal were released on the same day but Shawkan is the only one detained. Most of the 32 journalists that are still in prison now are freelancers.

“Nobody knows why Shawkan specifically is still imprisoned, despite all the solidarity campaigns that were created by the Press Syndicate and all the support he receives from the international community. It feels like he is specifically targeted,” he said.

Shawkan was arrested while covering the Rabaa sit-in dispersal. This is despite a letter sent from Demotix, an international organisation he used to work for, that proves his affiliation to the organisation.

Lawyers have called for his immediate release and the dropping of baseless charges due to violating Egypt’s penal code by exceeding two years in detention. Shawkan was first detained in a stadium along with other correspondents, who were released on the same day, and protesters.

Citing Mohammed Abou-Zeid, CPJ reported that a month later in September 2013, the former general prosecutor accused Shawkan of possessing weapons, attempted murder, and illegal assembly. After two years of pre-trial detention, Shawkan’s case was referred to Cairo Criminal Court.

Following the 25 January Revolution in 2011, violations against photojournalists and journalists in Egypt have dramatically increased, varying from assaulting citizens, confiscating their equipment, to arresting them for “baseless allegations”, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Several photojournalists were killed while reporting clashes. Mayyada Ashraf, a photojournalist in Al-Dostour newspaper, was killed when she was covering Ain Shams clashes in 2013.

Despite Mayyada’s friend testimony that confirmed that her friend was shot from behind, where the police were standing, former prime minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the police forces did not kill her and her death was the Muslim Brotherhood’s responsibility.

Photojournalist Al-Hosseini Abu Dheif was killed while he was covering Al-Ittahadiya presidential palace clashes during the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime. According to his friend, he insisted on getting closer to the events but then heard the sound of Abu-Dheif’s skull cracking.

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