ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan Testifies Before Congress on Egypt Verdict
Today I testified before Congress on the outrageous verdict convicting five ICFJ employees of working in Egypt illegally. Below is the transcript of my remarks. We're doing everything we can to support our wonderful staff and overturn the decision. We appreciate your backing during this difficult time.
International Center for Journalists
Testimony of ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan before the House Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa: "American NGOs Under Attack in Morsi's Egypt"
Chairman Ros-Lehtinen and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to testify about the terrible verdict in Egypt.
The International Center for Journalists’ work in Egypt and around the world is aimed at raising professional standards. We offer practical, hands-on programs using the latest digital tools. We help today’s journalists produce responsible, ethical coverage.
When we first learned of the startling charges against five ICFJ employees, we worked with excellent lawyers to present overwhelming evidence that the allegations were false. Up until the verdict, our lawyers were convinced of an acquittal. The decision to convict all of the NGO workers is a politically motivated move. It does not reflect the work of ICFJ in Egypt.
But this decision has ruined lives. What do you say to a distinguished journalist like Yehia Ghanem, whom we hired to lead our new program, which hadn’t even begun, and to finish the registration process? He got a two-year sentence and cannot return home to his wife and three children – and the country he loves – without going to prison.
What do we say to his children, who cry daily because they miss their father? One of his kids had both arms broken in school for defending his dad’s honor. Our other Egyptian employee, Islam Shafiq, is separated from his pregnant young wife. Though his one-year term was suspended, is it really safe for him to return? Both are here today.
The court labeled the three U.S.-based defendants – Patrick Butler, Natasha Tynes and Michelle Betz – as fugitives, though they were not based in Egypt and were not there when the charges were filed. They got five-year terms. These people’s livelihoods depend on travel. Labeled as convicts, will they be arrested and sent to Cairo by a nation that has an extradition treaty with Egypt?
Then there's the societal impact. Egyptian court officials say they will pursue anyone who helped the NGOs—and they want to investigate other civil society groups. The draft of a new NGO law, by many accounts, including the State Department’s, is onerously restrictive.
There is a chilling effect that has frozen the hopes of an Arab Spring.
For ICFJ, this politically motivated decision is particularly painful. We are not a political organization. We do not take political positions or offer political advice.
ICFJ has been working in Egypt since 2005, with the complete knowledge of the government. We applied for registration from the start—and shortly before our offices were raided, we gave the government full details about all of our programs.
We always have formal contracts with prestigious universities or news organizations, which are registered to carry out our programs. In 2011, our lawyer recommended that we open an office, a legal requirement for registration. We had conducted no activities in this office while we waited for final approval.
At the heart of this matter is a dispute between the U.S. and Egyptian governments over funding for NGO activity. The Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation was angered that the U.S. gave funds to NGOs instead of to her ministry. ICFJ and its employees were not aware of this dispute.
The verdict is full of loaded language. The court claims that NGOs may appear to support human rights and democracy, but that the underlying goal is to “undermine Egypt’s national security and lay out a sectarian map that serves U.S. and Israeli interests.” The judges described NGO work as a new form of “soft imperialism practiced by donors to destabilize, weaken and dismantle” Egypt.
How do we even relate to any of these charges? The ICFJ defendants did nothing wrong by training journalists. We are discussing with our lawyers how to appeal this verdict. But how can we be confident in the appeal process when judges simply ignore the facts? Our employees also risk getting thrown in jail if they return home for an appeal. And those tried in absentia have no legal recourse.
Egypt’s news media have made groundless attacks on our defendants. These distortions show that the media need ICFJ’s services more than ever. The real victims are the Egyptian people, who will likely see further backsliding in democracy and freedom of expression.
Members of Congress who visited Egypt during the trial assured our staff there that they had nothing to worry about. The U.S. government would protect those working on programs it funded, they said. We urge Congress now to hold fast to that promise. Please use all means possible to get these unjust verdicts overturned.
We need a pardon so that good, decent people like Yehia Ghanem and Islam Shafiq can recapture their lives. It would be a shame if Egyptian citizens now fear that working to build democratic institutions will only land them in jail.