1 May marks international Labour Day, as well as the first anniversary of the security forces’ storming of the Egyptian Press Syndicate to arrest journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Saqa on accusations of posting “false information” on Facebook about the case widely known as the “Red Sea Islands” case.
Former Press Syndicate head Yehia Qallash recalled the timeline of the day. “It was my first day off in an entire year, so I was not in the syndicate and I was doing some medical tests. I learned from a colleague of what happened at around 8pm, I went to the syndicate at 11, and the syndicate’s council had an urgent meeting,” he told Daily News Egypt.
“The incident was unprecedented in the history of the syndicate. It was shocking, so the reaction had to be shocking as well,” he said, adding that “it was the shameful beginning of a drawback on the issues of freedom of both expression and press.”
The incident resulted in several protests and sit-ins held by journalists, as well as the general assembly of the syndicate, which called for the release of all imprisoned journalists, the resignation of the Minister of Interior, and an “official apology” from President Al-Sisi.
One of the arrested journalists, and currently a syndicate council member, Amr Badr, recalled that it was the day before Easter when he and Al-Saqa were taking part in a sit-in at the syndicate, protesting the “Red Sea Islands” case.
“Our colleagues were visiting us. They would come and go. By 8pm we were alone and the storming took place. We were arrested and taken to the Qasr Al-Nil police station,” he told Daily News Egypt.
The incident, which took place two days before International Press Freedom Day—3 May—sparked an outrage among journalists. “It became apparent later that the incident was an attempt to tame journalism,” Qalash said.
Furthermore, Badr said that this year, the situation for press freedom and freedom of expression in Egypt is worse than the year before.
“It is worsening day after day,” Badr explained.
The state mobilised to file a lawsuit against Qallash, syndicate secretary-general Gamal Abdel Reheem, and then-head of the Freedoms Committee Khaled El-Balshy on charges of “harbouring wanted suspects.” They were later sentenced to a suspended one-year term, although both Badr and Al-Saqa themselves were released and acquitted from all charges. Qallash explained that “it is ironic that the storming of the syndicate was not investigated but we were interrogated.”
Current head of the syndicate Abdel Mohsen Salama stated earlier in a televised interview that he was against the storming.
The current syndicate board also expressed, in its first official statement after the elections, that it demanded investigations into alleged violations committed by the Ministry of Interior when it stormed the syndicate on 1 May 2016.
One year later, Badr believes that the current syndicate board is not dealing with the press freedom issue appropriately, especially since there are still a number of imprisoned journalists.
As a newly elected member of the council, he stated that press freedom is a priority, among other priorities such as arbitrary dismissal.
“The freedom issue is a matter of life or death for me,” Badr said.