The Agony of an Egyptian Journalist
On June 4, 2013, Egyptian newspaper editor and TV commentator Yehia Ghanem was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor after a series of raids against foreign non-governmental organizations in Egypt. Ghanem’s crime: working with one of those NGOs, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), training journalists in post-revolution Egypt. Now staying in Washington, D.C., Ghanem faces prison should he return to Egypt, where his wife and three children remain. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the Committee to Protect Journalists have given Ghanem an academic refuge in the form of a year-long fellowship at the school, beginning in August.
Carmel Delshad spoke with Ghanem about the NGO trial and its implications for Egypt, a country in the crucible of change two years after its revolution. Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity.
You've dedicated much of your life to working in journalism all over the world: in South Africa, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few places. When did you find out there were legal issues complicating your work with ICFJ in Egypt?
The first time was in September 2011, two weeks after I joined ICFJ. I thought it was just a routine thing and ICFJ said they applied to be registered in June 2011 before I began. There was a lawyer taking care of the legal problems with the foreign affairs office and I said okay.
I suggested we find a partnership with Al Ahram newspaper as a legal cover. We did that – and a month later, the judicial high court dragged me into investigations and I was standing in a cage inside the courtroom. The actual time that I worked for ICFJ was two months, and after that, off to the courts, off to the cage, and here I am, stranded in the U.S.
Many NGOs were raided in December 2011, including U.S.-based Freedom House, the International Democratic Institute and the National Republican Institute. How did you first find out about the raids?
There was a program officer who was mainly in charge of furnishing the office and equipment. He called me and he was panicking. At the time they raided the office, I was meeting with the minister of information. My coworker kept calling and I took the call and he was shaking over the phone. He said, “Boss, there are a lot of people here from the special and counterterrorism forces.”
You were accused of accepting illegal foreign funding. What sort of evidence did the prosecution produce?
I was accused of taking $3 million in the two months I worked with ICFJ. They didn’t produce any evidence. It’s a sheer lie. I had to come up with the proof that I didn’t take anything. I remember there were problems in transferring money for the office, even before they hired me. So I came up with a solution: Okay, I’ll pay it from my own account until these things are sorted out. Until I was referred to criminal court, ICFJ owed me three months of rent, and that’s what I said to the court.
Do you think any of your previous work could have angered someone in the government and left them with a vendetta against you?
It seems that there is someone very upset with me. I am the only defendant who proved with documents beyond any doubt that at the time when they started the investigation I hadn’t had the chance to start working.
Assume, yes, I was about to commit a crime by training journalists. Assume this was a crime and a bad thing. But I hadn’t done it. I hadn’t even had the chance. You know what the judge did? He laughed. He said it’s a good point. Yet he gave me a sentence of two years with hard labor. This is the kind of justice we have back home.
In total, 43 NGO workers, Egyptian and foreign, were charged with receiving illegal funding. Why do you think this happened to ICFJ and the other NGOs?
I believe that one of the main reasons is that there was a vendetta somewhere, that somebody in the government felt betrayed. The remaining pillars of the former regime felt betrayed by the U.S.A. first and foremost. I heard that many of them thought the U.S.A. betrayed and sold out [former President Hosni] Mubarak and his regime.
It started politically, but why did it end politically? We expected and hoped that it would end legally. The whole thing from A to Z is politics. What about the human lives smashed and destroyed? That’s the last thing they care about. We’re nothing. It’s so painful to me to speak like that, but I’m saying the truth as I see it.
What was it like going through the trial?
One of the worst things about this case is the way the media was used to make us look as if we were the enemy of the state. At the height of the trial, I wanted to take the underground and someone walked up, stood in front of me and spit in my face.
You can’t imagine the kind of mean, dirty, low character defamation campaign waged against us. I’m well known to everyone as a regular guest on TV shows, and I wrote for the last 25 years, so I got the real brunt of the campaign.
My contact information and address were leaked to the media, and I would end up with people asking for revenge against the “U.S. agent.” The whole atmosphere was so poisoned. It was torture. Intolerable. I could have stood anything, but not the implications on family. It’s painful to see what is being done by your fellow countrymen.
How has the trial affected your family?
I told my kids, Don’t discuss or defend me, don’t answer if anyone says anything. My eldest son, it was too much for him, he tried to defend his father – not physically, but his classmates responded physically. They tied him up and they broke both of his arms.
When did you first hear about the verdict? Is it what you expected?
On June 3 I was in D.C., and I was heading back home to Egypt to celebrate the acquittal I expected. Before I traveled, ICFJ said they were having a board meeting and asked me to give a speech. We all expected an acquittal. I had planned to leave D.C. on June 12, but then it hit me: I am a convict. I’m stuck. I’m stuck until the appeal, and the hearing still has to be set.
How has the trial affected you?
It’s a very tough test. I thought that I had seen the worst, in prisons, Afghanistan, Taliban, Congo, and frankly, this is my worst. This is my worst nightmare.
There is no home. I don’t have a home. I feel like I’m hanging in the air between heaven and earth. There’s no ground. I have a feeling that I will end up in one of those cells, but what else can I do? I’m paying something that I don’t owe.
As someone who has spent much of his time helping to change journalism in Egypt, how has this impacted you?
Some of the best years of my life I spent In Africa as a correspondent. I lived with the Zulus and I learned a lot from them. They believe that if you cross the river, you shouldn’t think about crocodiles. Who cares about the crocodiles? You make up your mind and cross the river.
We’re going to go for the appeal. There is a possibility I will go to jail while we proceed with the appeal. There aren’t many options. I am choosing between the worst and worst. If I don’t appeal, the verdict is permanent.