Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, was released on 4 March 2019 after being held in Egyptian detention on anti-state charges. Shawkan served a five-year prison sentence for his alleged involvement in a Muslim Brotherhood protest in Cairo on 14 August 2013. His subsequent arrest was coordinated by supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president who was later removed after a coup in 2013. Shawkan maintains that he attended the sit-in during an assignment for the London-based photo agency Demotix
Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director Najia Brown stated: “Mahmoud Abou Zeid’s long overdue release brings to an end a painful ordeal for him and his family. As a prisoner of conscience, he should never have been forced to spend a single minute behind bars – let alone five and a half years.” Brown continued, claiming that “Mahmoud Abou Zeid was arrested and imprisoned solely for doing his job as a journalist”. The Committee to Protect Journalists also posted on twitter stating: “We are relieved to hear that #Shawkan is finally free after spending over five years in jail and call on authorities to end their shameful treatment of this photojournalist by removing any conditions to his release.” Shawkan himself described his release to Reuters news agency as “a feeling I cannot explain. I am free.”
The National claimed that the violent intervention orchestrated by the Egyptian police and military forces in 2013 killed over 278 people in the conflict. Shawkan was charged with 24 offences, including “murder and membership of a terrorist organisation,” which under Egyptian law can incur the death penalty. During his trial in September 2018, Shawkan was sentenced to five years in prison – a punishment he had already served in pre-trial detention – in addition to a fine and a five-year probation period. As Shawkan was unable to pay the fine, an additional six-month prison term was added to his sentence. Shawkan’s arrest sparked criticism from international human rights groups demanding his release. For example, Amnesty International and the International Committee for the Protection of Journalists maintained that Shawkan’s detention was arbitrary and urged Cairo to release him. Last year, the UN Culture Agency, UNESCO, granted Shawkan the Press Freedom Prize, an award later denounced by the Egyptian government.
Shawkan’s recent release has been commended by these various international organisations – however his position does not wholly guarantee him secure human rights. The probation agreement attached to his release requires that he spends 12 hours in a police station for the next five years, according to his lawyer, Taher Abul Nasr. In addition, Shawkan will be forbidden to manage his own financial assets throughout his surveillance period. These requirements further infringe on the journalist’s freedom by constraining his ability to live an independent and autonomous life. Moreover, the conditions applied to Shawkan’s release by the Egyptian state subject him to further restrictive surveillance, arguably an informal means of imprisonment for additional five years. It entails that Shawkan will have been under Egyptian surveillance for ten years in total for his alleged crimes.
Shawkan’s imprisonment is a brutal reminder of the severity of state executed violence that often arises in response to political protest movements. In order to guarantee the safety of journalists reporting on political conflicts across the globe, the international community must do more to ensure the protection of journalists undertaking dangerous assignments. Reporters Without Borders claim that at least 32 Egyptian journalists are currently detained in Egyptian detention, illustrating that measures of prevention and accountability must be put in place to facilitate progression towards peaceful reporting. As it is not unusual for journalists reporting on political protests and conflicts to experience injustice themselves, new laws must be created to restrain human rights violations of this kind.
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