Free Egypt’s jailed journalists

Calling to account Sisi’s fan club

IT WAS AN IMPROBABLE introduction. Sitting in the Palace of Westminster with 11 members of Egypt's Parliament, we watched a scratchy video of Ibrahim Eissa - a giant of their country's anti-establishment journalism. Twice Mubarak jailed him for his writing, newspapers have been closed to shut him up and the country's Central Bank once pursued him for $350 million damages, after it accused him of undermining the national economy.

Egyptian parliamentarians

Egyptian parliamentarians at the meeting (second from left, General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet)

In recent times, Eissa has performed a role somewhere between bombastic news anchor and shock jock. In his on-screen persona he throws his arms in the air, beats his sizeable chest and, as his delivery turns feverish, deploys the gesticulations of a demented traffic warden. Subtitles render his mocking denunciations flat, but it is clear that Egypt's President Sisi is the butt of his insults and lampooning. His super-charged ferocity is a wonder to behold.

The purpose of my encounter with the delegation of parliamentarians was to express the NUJ's concern at Egypt's disturbing record on press freedom. Since the events of 2013 when Field Marshal Sisi supplanted Mohamed Morsi as the nation's president, the International Federation of Journalists has confirmed that 29 media workers have been jailed (and there are likely more). In May, the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists headquarters was raided, and since then the union's leader has been sentenced to two years in prison.

The MPs were all members of the parliament elected in 2015. It was a curious election - some parties were banned from taking part, others called for a boycott. The turn-out was only 10 per cent and 351 of the 596 MPs describe themselves as independent. Of those I met, nearly all were independent. Their line was that while mistakes have been made, free expression in Egypt bears comparison to that in western Europe. "We are the world's oldest civilisation but the youngest democracy", Dalia Youssef MP told us in her role as spokesperson for the Egyptian delegates. Her purpose in showing us Ibrahim Eissa's showreel was to suggest that there could surely be no issue with free speech when such a ferocious critic was allowed to lustily condemn the head of state on television each evening?

I found myself wondering which journalists' work British politicians might deploy to showcase our press freedoms? Ian Hislop probably comes closest to Eissa, although much as I admire Private Eye, it makes me think that those journalists who set out to pillory the UK establishment really need to up their game.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

It would be satisfying to report that since this meeting I feel confident that Egypt is now a well-spring of free expression, or at least dependably set to become one. Alas, the trials are still too frequent and errors too numerous for this to be true. Nevertheless, the NUJ has started a purposeful conversation with a group of influential individuals who give every impression of sharing many of our concerns.

Nebulous as our exchange might sound, it was an afternoon purposefully spent. Perusing shared principles for the benefit of distant beneficiaries is a cornerstone of trade unionism. I doubt that I will ever meet any of the journalists whose cases we made. It is a comfort to think, however, that if reporters in Britain and Ireland were ever arbitrarily detained, fellow journalists and trades unionists around the world would would do what they could to pressure politicians on our behalf.

The afternoon ended on a curious note. Our encounter was held under the auspices of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt, chaired by veteran right-winger Sir Gerald Howarth MP. A junior minister in the 1980s, Howarth helpfully convened and facilitated our meeting.

At its conclusion, Howarth called his fellow parliamentarians to sit tight for a moment as he fixed the NUJ delegation in a steely gaze. "The BBC keeps talking about a military overthrow in Egypt, when in fact President Sisi was promoted to power by the popular will... Egypt is a vital ally for Britain and all this talk of military overthrow is deeply unhelpful", he intoned.

It seemed that he hoped the union could persuade the BBC to nuance its language when reporting matters Nilotic (although calling Sisi's assumption of power anything other than a military coup would require a very elastic view of events). We reminded him that the NUJ holds no more sway over our public service broadcaster's editorial than he does. At this Sir Gerald - an unrepentant Thatcherite and vocal opponent of gay rights - looked me in the eye and said: "well you are hardly neutral, are you, or representative of mainstream opinion?"

I was slightly shocked and, as we filed out of the room, asked him what he meant. "You used to work for the New Statesman, didn't you - hardly mainstream."

His research was sound, I confess - although it is more than 20 years since I wrote for the left-of-centre weekly. (He appeared rather more approving of the General Secretary's time at the Daily Express.)

Maybe Howarth's outburst is the product of his sometimes turbulent relationship with the media? The BBC once devoted an edition of Panorama to highlighting the links he and his friend Neil Hamilton MP have had with "fringe" political organisations. It was called "Maggie's Militant Tendency".

Whatever the intended point, however, his interjection well illustrated the common reflex among right-wing politicians to treat press freedom as an inconvenience, as well as underlining the need to vigorously assert journalistic liberty wherever possible. Indeed, the case for sometime Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman's adage that a dog beside a lamppost provides the best guide for journalists considering how to position themselves in relation to politicians could not have been better made.