Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Egypt, Jailed Photojournalist Shawkan Receives UNESCO Free Press Award

Egypt- Mahmoud Abu Zeid
Photo AFP

Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, was released on March 4th, 2019 after spending over five years in Egyptian detention, according to a post from his Twitter account. Egyptian authorities released Shawkan under “police observation” for five years. He must appear at a police station every day at sunset.

Imprisoned photojournalist (30) received the 2018 UNESCO/Guillero Cano Press Freedom Prize on 2 May 2018, World Press Freedom Day. The Egyptian government was not amused.

“The choice of Mahmoud Abu Zeid pays tribute to his courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression,” Maria Ressa, president of the jury, said in a statement.

As a freelance photographer working for international outlets such as TIME magazine, Die Zeit and photo agency Demotix, Shawkan was in Cairo covering the Rabaa sit-in supporting deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi when it was violently dispersed by security forces on 14 August 2013. While accounts differ, it is likely that up to a thousand protesters were killed and hundreds arrested. Shawkan was one of them.

In a letter he wrote from prison in 2014, Shawkan recalled how he was arrested with two foreign journalists who were soon released. He was instead held in a police station and then transferred to Abu Zaabal prison. ‘Five officers beat me at the same time with a belt and their fists, and kicked me with their boots,’ Shawkan wrote.

After being held in pre-trial detention for over two years, in violation of Egypt’s own law, charges were pressed in September 2015, in a case with 738 other defendants, known as the ‘Rabaa sit-in dispersal’ case. The charges ranged from weapons possession, illegal assembly, vandalism and murder to membership of a banned group (the Muslim Brotherhood). The first court session took place in December 2015. Shawkan is still waiting for a verdict. The public prosecutor requested the death penalty for him and all other defendants in the case, local media reported in March 2018.

He is currently being held in the high-security Tora prison in Cairo, which is notorious for its poor treatment of prisoners. His health has deteriorated. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2016, and suffers from malnourishment and anemia. ‘I want to tell you about the cell I share with 12 political prisoners… We live in a small cell of 3 x 4 metres, which is not even suitable to be a cage for animals. I sleep on the floor. Every day is the same,’ he wrote from prison.

Shawkan has become a symbol of the oppression of journalists in Egypt. The country ranks 161 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, and is the world’s third worst in imprisoning journalists. His case is particularly striking because of the length of his imprisonment without conviction. In addition, he is on trial with many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, members and supporters who were also at the Rabaa sit-in, while he himself has no affiliation with the Brotherhood and was merely doing his job when he was arrested.

“I’m a photojournalist with no affiliations whatsoever,” Shawkan himself told the judge during a court hearing in November 2016. International human rights organizations have dubbed Shawkan a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience. The US-based National Press Club awarded Shawkan the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award in June 2016, and the Committee to Protect Journalists awarded him the International Press Freedom Award the same year.

RSF started a campaign for Shakwan in April 2018 under the hashtag #MyPicforShawkan to draw attention to his case and put pressure on the Egyptian authorities to release him.

“For five years, we have wondered why he was and is still being held,” Yehia el-Sherbini, a friend of Shawkan’s who created the Facebook page Freedom for Shawkan, told Fanack Chronicle. “He actually wanted Morsi to leave,” el-Sherbini refuted his alleged affiliation with the Brotherhood.

El-Sherbini also explained his alias, saying Shawkan is an old family name that was given to him as a nickname when he was a child. His family is from Sohag in Upper Egypt and lived for many years in Kuwait when he was growing up. He studied photojournalism at the academy of Akhbar al-Youm, a local state newspaper. “He is a very talented, professional journalist who loved to take pictures,” el-Sherbini said of his friend.

In other letters from prison, Shawkan appealed to photojournalists to continue their work despite the challenges. ‘Hold on to the dream, fight for the photo … don’t put down the cameras no matter what it takes,’ read one. ‘Keep shouting, journalism is not a crime,’ read another.

According to el-Sherbini, the UNESCO award is a welcome encouragement, not least because of the $25,000 prize money that is involved. “His family spent a lot during his detention and trial.” He added: “We try to motivate him, but in the end [he] does not want a prize, he wants to be free.”

Shawkan’s nomination for the award sparked an angry reaction from Egypt. “UNESCO shouldn’t be involved in any political matters,” said parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel Aal, adding that someone who faces criminal charges should not be awarded. The spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “deepest regret” over Shawkan’s nomination, warning of the “consequences of the politicization of UNESCO” that would drag the organization “into the agenda of certain countries”.

However, Egyptian activist Wael Eskandar lauded the nomination, tweeting: ‘Thank you for whoever inside UNESCO tried to fight back the injustice against photojournalist Shawkan by granting him the press freedom award. A small way to fight against the incredible injustice done to him.’

Egypt has at times given in to international pressure to release journalists with a foreign nationality, as in the case of the former al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste (Australian) and Mohamed Fahmy (Canadian-Egyptian). In addition, there are numerous cases of foreign journalists who were effectively expelled from Egypt or denied entry upon arrival, such as Ricard Gonzalez (Spain), Remy Pigaglio (France) and most recently Bel Trew (British). Egyptian journalists are usually less fortunate. Being at the mercy of the local police and judicial system, they risk prison terms or at least lengthy detentions before and during trial.

Yet el-Sherbini remains hopeful. “They will release him because there is no evidence whatsoever against him.” As Shawkan’s lawyers contest the charges, el-Sherbini expects a non-guilty ruling within the next three or four months.

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