The Reuters news agency is in the crosshairs of authorities in Egypt after it published a report last week claiming that Giulio Regeni, the Italian researcher who was tortured and murdered in Cairo, was detained by Egyptian police on the night he disappeared.
The reported questioning of a Cairo-based Reuters journalist by police and prosecutors following publication of the Regeni story has been strongly criticised by press freedom groups.
Egypt has staunchly denied the Regeni report, and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has previously said “lies and allegations” in the press and on social media about the researcher’s death were putting the country at risk.
Last Thursday Reuters revealed that six police and intelligence sources had said the young Italian doctoral student was “detained by police and then transferred to a compound run by homeland security the day he vanished”.
Regeni disappeared on 25 January; his corpse was discovered bearing signs of torture on 4 February on a desert road leading to Cairo. The Egyptian government has furiously rejected claims that the security services may have been involved in his death.
On Friday reports surfaced that the head of Azbakiya police station, where Reuters reported that Regeni was initially taken, had filed a police report against Reuters, naming the Cairo bureau chief, Michael Georgy. The report accuses Reuters of publishing “false news aimed at disturbing public order” and “spreading rumours to harm Egypt’s reputation”.
The Egyptian interior ministry, which manages the police, said the Reuters report was “unfounded”. Despite a culture of secrecy surrounding the inner workings of the Egyptian government, it condemned Reuters’ use of anonymous sources to substantiate its report, and said the ministry “reserves the right to take legal action against promoters of these rumours and false news”.
Ahmed Hanafy, the chief public prosecutor of Qasr el-Nil police station in downtown Cairo, where the complaint was filed, said: “So far, the prosecution did not charge Reuters with anything. We are just gathering information about the case according to the claim made by the officer from Azbakiya.”
He said no one from Reuters had been summoned for questioning. Georgy could face up to a year in prison and a fine of up to 20,000 Egyptian pounds (£1,600) if the case goes to court and he is convicted.
David Crundwell, a senior vice-president at Thomson Reuters, said: “We stand by the story published on 21 April, 2016 regarding the detention of an Italian student, Giulio Regeni. The story did not state who is responsible for his death, and is consistent with Reuters’ commitment to accurate and independent journalism.
“We cannot verify whether a complaint has been filed against Reuters regarding the story, as we have not received notice of any legal action.”
The investigation into Reuters and the possibility that the interior ministry could decide to pursue the case to trial has sent a shudder through those observing the increasing deterioration of freedom of the press in Egypt since 2013. Casting a long shadow over the incident is the recent trial of three journalists from the Qatari-owned broadcaster al-Jazeera, who were also accused of publishing “false news”.
The trial and retrial of the three journalists from Egypt, Canada and Australia shocked observers in 2014 and 2015. Two defendants, Baher Mohammed and Mohammed Fahmy, were later pardoned by Sisi, and Peter Greste was deported from Egypt. At least three other journalists were convicted in absentia, including Britons Dominic Kane and Sue Turton, who have since fought to clear their names.
HA Hellyer, of the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said the possibility that the Egyptian government could consider another high-profile attack on the foreign press was a concern. “They will be rather cautious about inviting that sort of hassle – but that’s not to say they can’t find other ways to make things difficult for Reuters to operate,” he said.
“There are other options: the ministry can launch a case against Reuters as a company,” he added. Reuters, a London-based news agency, is owned by the Canadian company Thomson Reuters; Georgy is a US citizen.
“I think that would be something they would not entertain, as it would cause a huge amount of hassle not just for the ministry of the interior but for the Egyptian state with three countries that they’re keen to maintain good relations with,” he said.
British Foreign Office spokespeople declined to comment on the possibility of legal action against Reuters. “We are very concerned by reports that Mr Regeni had been subjected to torture,” they said. “We have raised his case with the Egyptian authorities in both London and Cairo and underlined the need for a full and transparent investigation. We remain in contact with both the Italian and Egyptian authorities.”
Sherif Mansour, of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said: “These reports and threats are disturbing and come against a backdrop of increasing intolerance of independent journalism. The Egyptian authorities should repeal broad laws that make criminal prosecutions for spreading so-called false news possible.”
In CPJ’s most recent survey of press freedoms around the world, Egypt was found to be the world’s second largest jailer of journalists, with 23 journalists behind bars.
On Monday thousands of police were deployed across Cairo in anticipation of demonstrations to protest against the government’s decision to surrender control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
Riot police backed by armoured vehicles were massed at Cairo’s Tahrir square, the centre of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, as well as on the city’s ring road and at a suburban square where at least 600 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed by security forces in 2013.
Authorities have detained dozens of activists in recent days, with the arrests continuing until just hours before the planned demonstrations. Freedom for the Brave, an activist group, says nearly 100 people have been arrested since the latest round of detentions began last week.
Source: The Guardian