By Hussein Mahmoud
CAIRO (AA) – The trial of the head of Egypt’s press syndicate and two board members on charges of harboring journalists is seen as a new clampdown by the Egyptian authorities on press freedoms in the country.
Last week, Egyptian authorities referred the head of the Journalists Syndicate, Yahya Qallash, and two colleagues to trial on charges of harboring “fugitives” and publishing false news.
The move came almost one month after police stormed the syndicate’s headquarters in Cairo, arresting two journalists for allegedly "inciting protests" and "plotting to overthrow the ruling regime".
Syndicate officials have decried the raid -- the first in the syndicate’s history -- as a "blatant assault on journalists’ dignity" and have demanded the interior minister’s dismissal.
The interior ministry, for its part, said the arrest of the two journalists had been carried out in accordance with the law and in line with a warrant issued by Egypt’s prosecutor-general.
“The trial of the press union’s chief and his two colleagues is an unprecedented move,” Mahmoud Khalil, a professor of journalism at Cairo University, told Anadolu Agency.
He blamed the recent escalation for what he described as intransigence and disrespect of law by all parties involved in the crisis.
“The decision to refer the three journalists to trial is now taking the issue to a new abyss,” he said.
If convicted, the three syndicate officials could face prison.
The trial of the three journalists and the raid on the syndicate’s headquarters “are nothing but an attempt to use the law to terrorize the press union,” former judge Nagi Derbala told Anadolu Agency.
Veteran political analyst Hassan Nafaa sees the trial of the three syndicate officials as the latest in restrictions on press freedoms in Egypt.
“The new escalation is a new part of limitations on media freedoms,” Nafaa told Anadolu Agency. “It may pave the way for a total tyranny by the regime,” he opined.
Nafaa said the way the authorities dealt with the crisis of the press syndicate “gives the impression that all state institutions are moving within a system ruled by a regime that does not separate between powers”.
The arrest of the press syndicate’s head and his two colleagues has already drawn worldwide condemnations.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern over the arrest of the press syndicate’s officials, while the EU described the move as broader limitations on freedom of expression and press freedom in Egypt.
Amnesty International also described the arrests as a “draconian clampdown” on media freedom in Egypt.
The arrest "signals a dangerous escalation of the Egyptian authorities' draconian clampdown on freedom of expression and demonstrates the extreme measures the authorities are prepared to take in order to tighten their iron grip on power", Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Magdalena Mughrabi, said.
By prosecuting them, the authorities seek "to send a strong message to intimidate all journalists into silence", she said.
Khalil, the journalist professor, believes that the current crisis could be settled through negotiations between the press syndicate and Egyptian authorities.
“[The trial] could also be used to pile pressure on the syndicate to call early election,” he said.
In recent weeks, a number of journalists, led by Mubarak-era syndicate’s chief Makram Mohamed, have called for early election, blaming the syndicate’s board for escalating the situation with the interior ministry by harboring journalists wanted by the authorities.
“The authorities could also escalate the situation by arresting more syndicate’s officials,” Khalil said. He, however, ruled out that the authorities would take such a move.
Egypt has been in the throes of political violence since the military unseated Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, in a 2013 coup, following protests against his administration.
Since then, the authorities have launched a harsh crackdown on dissent, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.
*Ali Abo Rezig contributed to this report from Ankara