Crackdown in Egypt: Lessons Learned by the International Center For Journalists

Dec 192013
  • Yehia Ghanem (left) was convicted in Egypt's NGO trial along with four others working for ICFJ.

This piece was originally published on the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)'s website.

Some moments in history seem ideal for helping the media to develop. Right before and after the Arab Spring, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) saw tremendous opportunity to help Egyptian journalists produce investigative pieces and to train bloggers and other citizen journalists and link them with mainstream media. For ICFJ, there was so much potential to build vigorous, independent media in Egypt. For other non-government organizations (NGOs), there was a unique opening to build strong democratic institutions and human rights protections. We jumped right in.

What we did not envision was a legal case against the NGOs trying to build those institutions – and a proposed NGO law that could potentially be even more restrictive than in the Mubarak era. Five people working for ICFJ, including two Egyptians, got slapped with prison terms of up to five years. All of our employees are now out of the country.

Looking back, we – and almost everyone – underestimated the level of anti-U.S. sentiment in the Egyptian government and society as a whole. The journalists and news organizations we worked with over the years appreciated the work of ICFJ and wanted more. So we were caught off guard when the post-Arab Spring government cracked down on our work and stoked a media frenzy that riled public support for the crackdown.

So what are the lessons learned?

• NGOs working in countries without strong democratic institutions and rule of law must be extremely vigilant. We learned that any time a government official calls in an employee for questioning, you must take it very seriously. Hire good lawyers and bring them along. The questions may seem innocuous, but the process is anything but.

• Transitional periods are tremendously risky – and may not be the right time for a rush of NGO activity. The Arab Spring appeared to signal a new era, but in effect the Mubarak holdovers still controlled many levers, including the judiciary – and it turns out, much of the media. It’s hard not to be euphoric when societies open up, but it tends to cloud the dicey reality on the ground.

• Don’t assume the law is sacrosanct. The law required that we open an office to get registration. We were later slapped with a lawsuit for operating illegally in the country because we opened an office. And the verdict was purely political. Judges ignored the facts and rubberstamped the prevailing political view. We faced ridiculous charges such as conspiring to destabilize Egypt with the intent of dividing the country into separate nations. In other words, don’t expect a fair trial in a politically motivated case. You may fight a great legal battle based on the facts, and discover the facts are irrelevant in this kind of confrontation.

• Build a loyal local constituency. The authorities whipped up a media frenzy against the NGOs in Egypt. The fact is, many Egyptians have benefitted from NGO activities. Let’s identify those in the power structure who want our services. Clearly the media needs ICFJ training so that it doesn’t do the dirty work of politicians – and instead serves the public with reliable information.

• NGOs should join forces on the ground. Collectively, NGOs have more clout than alone. We need to stay in touch with one another. Perhaps the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) can help do this.

• Listen for disputes among governments. We had no idea that the U.S. and Egyptian governments were in a fight over funds for NGOs. That triggered the criminal charges. We need more transparency from governments on issues that could directly affect the well-being of our organization and employees.

• Be conservative in what you propose to funders. Be certain that your goals are achievable and will not put you in a dangerous position. How can you tell? The best judges of what activities should and should not be carried out are local experts and consultants.

• Make sure that you have taken all possible security precautions, especially cyber-security. In today’s world, it is easy for oppressive governments and hostile groups to intercept communications that can later be used against you. (This wasn’t an issue for us in Egypt, but we were extremely careful in our written and phone communications with staffers, lawyers, and others. It has been used against NGOs in other circumstances.) This situation is only going to get worse, as governments and crime syndicates hire hackers to track down journalists.

• The laws concerning NGO activities are confusing – and sometimes contradictory. So NGOs need to be extremely cautious.

Right now, our two Egyptian employees are in the U.S. We are doing whatever we can to help them and their families. They never actually began our program, but that didn’t matter to the courts. This trial has caused tremendous pain for them and their loved ones – and put undue hardship on the Westerners convicted in absentia. Also, other repressive countries are taking note of the success Egypt has had in its crackdown on civil society and borrowing a page from its playbook.

I wouldn’t wish what happened to ICFJ on any other media development organization, so I hope our experience can help inform the field going forward.