Egyptian Government Bans ICFJ, Issues Arrest Warrants to Many Others
On June 4, 2013, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced 43 defendants to various prison terms on charges of receiving illicit funds and operating without a license in Egypt. The defendants were non-governmental organization (NGO) workers and were German, US, Norway, Palestine, Jordan, and Serbian nationals as well as two Egyptians. The court sentenced 27 defendants to five years prison in absentia, meaning they were not present in the proceedings of the court during sentencing. Of the defendants present in court during sentencing, five, including one American, were sentenced to two years behind bars. The remaining 11 defendants that showed up in court were given one-year suspended sentences.
On top of the sentencing, the Egyptian court also ordered the closure of five foreign NGOs and the confiscation of their funds and documents in the foreign-funded NGOs case.[i] The following non-governmental organizations were forcefully shut down: the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House (FH), and the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Organisation. The shutting down of these NGOs sparked severe criticism of the court’s decision from prominent figures in these organizations. Freedom House described the trial as a “government-led witch-hunt intended to strangle civil society activity and limit free expression in post-revolutionary Egypt.” Freedom House President David Kramer said: “This whole case was a disgrace from the very beginning, and the verdict makes a mockery of the Egyptian judicial process.”[ii] German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was “outraged about the harsh verdict against the NGO employees and the closure of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.” He described the verdict as a “worrying decision that weakens the role of civil society as an important banner of democracy in the new democratic Egypt.” Head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, Hafez Abou Se’da, said the verdict was intended to “destroy the role of NGOs in Egypt, especially since they were a key mechanism in the detection of human rights violations in the Mubarak-era.”[iii]
This study focuses on the International Center for Journalists and seeks to highlight the unjust treatment they have received for their work conducted in Egypt over the past few years. The International center for Journalists is a self-proclaimed non-political actor that simply helped local Egyptian journalists and citizen-journalists better report the news. The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is a non-governmental organization (NGO) located in Washington, D.C. that focuses on media development around the world. ICFJ believes that responsible journalism empowers citizens and holds governments accountable. They hold the belief that independent media are critical in improving the condition millions of lives around the world. ICFJ has worked with over 80,000 citizen and profession journalists and media managers from 180 different countries in the past 30 years. Along with training journalists, the International Center for Journalists launches news organizations, media associations, journalism schools and new products. With a focus on innovation, ICFJ has formed networks of citizen journalists who are using new mobile services to engage underserved communities in India, Indonesia and Ghana.[iv] They have organized the first Africa News Innovation Challenge to solve digital bottlenecks and create new applications for use in newsrooms across the continent.[v] The International Center for Journalists is mostly privately funded; however a small number of their projects are funded by the United States government. ICFJ was founded by three U.S. journalists in 1984 – Tom Winship, Jim Ewing, and George Krimsky. These founders created the ICFJ with the goal of supporting their fellow journalists abroad, particularly those in countries with poor or unestablished free press structures.
At the event “Covering Egypt: The Media and the Revolution” sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a panel of journalism experts said that Twitter and Facebook were key tools in bringing down two dictators – and they helped change how the world now perceives the Middle East.[vi] “The delivery and the speed of information have never existed at this level before,” said Al Jazeera anchor Riz Khan of the revolutionary movement that forced out Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.[vii] During the panel, ICFJ director of Middle East programs, Natasha Tynes, said that social media makes it harder for governments to keep secrets and tell lies. The International Center for Journalists saw a wonderful opportunity to help Egyptian journalists produce investigative pieces and to train citizen journalists and bloggers and connect them with mainstream media right before and after the Arab Spring. According to Joyce Barnathan, President of the International Center for Journalists, there was so much potential to build vigorous, independent media in Egypt following these events.[viii] Around the same time, other non-governmental organizations saw a unique opportunity to implement strong human rights protections and democratic institutions in Egypt.
In Egypt, the International Center for Journalists conducts three major programs to support their mission. The first, ‘On the Margins No More: Citizen Journalism Training for Egyptian Women and Youth,’ is a training program that promotes the concept of citizen journalism. This workshop includes citizen journalism best practices, ethical issues in dealing with citizen journalists and their content, and the latest new media tools for citizen and professional journalists to achieve more exciting and interactive media content.[ix] In this program, journalists also receive education on a variety of political, social, gender, and environmental issues of importance to the general Egyptian population. Stories on these issues are published and broadcasted through local media outlets.
The second ICFJ project in Egypt is called ‘Public Service Journalism for Arabic speaking Journalists.’ This program includes a six-week online course in Arabic on using digital tools in public service journalism and investigative techniques.[x] This course was part of a project that brought together journalists, citizen journalists, and civil society actors from Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, and West Bank/Gaza. Sixty course participants from these countries worked on ideas for multimedia public service journalism projects. Throughout the online course, the participants learned various skills including:
- Understanding and using social media
- Twitter basics
- How to identify and adapt emerging technologies
- Online video production
- Understanding and using mobile, SMS and location-aware services
- Visual storytelling techniques
- Reporting through crowdsourcing
- Writing for the real-time web
- Mapping and mashups for beginners
The best-performing participants in the online course were invited to Cairo for four digital media “boot camps,” where they had access to experts in technology, multimedia and online marketing.[xi] Following these “boot camps,” participants traveled to the United States for two weeks to partake in events which included site visits and meetings reflecting their interests with agents of civil society and non-profit organizations as well as journalistic organizations and government agencies. This affair was made possible with the assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The final ICFJ project in Egypt is titled ‘Unlocking the Economic Potential of Digital Media.’ This is a Professional Fellows program that is open for professional and citizen journalists, digital media entrepreneurs, technologists, and media business managers from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Those accepted to this program are asked to generate media business models that connect the power of digital tools to produce sustainable new revenue. Participants will then be connected with expert U.S. counterparts in organizations which include institutions that invent new digital tools and pioneer new ways to use them to deliver news and information and serve the public interest as well as traditional media and new digital media startups. Professional Fellows from the MENA region will have four-week programs in the United Stated anchored by 22-day internships at these institutions, while their U.S. counterparts will visit the MENA fellows’ homelands during two-week programs.[xii] The MENA fellows will experience life in the United States while being exposed to the newest innovations in the digital media world. They will participate in the Professional Fellows Congresses in Washington, D.C. at the end of their program. The common factor linking this group is that they share in developing new media business models and products – rooted in digital technology – that are sustainable engines for independent sources of news and information.[xiii] Collectively, these projects represent the process ICFJ has taken to improve Egyptian journalism and enable citizen journalists and others to report on events more effectively.
These efforts from the International Center for Journalists in Egypt sought to empower Egyptian citizens with the skills and knowledge necessary to report the news effectively. In an interview with Natasha Tynes, former Program Director for the International Center for Journalists, I learned a great deal about ICFJ’s situation in Egypt as well as her own personal experience. When asked about what actors and organizations assisted ICFJ programs in Egypt, Natasha told me that their work was made possible by various donors and local partners. The majority of ICFJ’s donors are private, while some funds are sent from the US government. The center’s biggest donor is the Knight Foundation, a foundation dedicated to supporting transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities, and foster the arts. The Knight Foundation, based in Miami, Florida, believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. In Egypt, the Department of Human Rights and Labor (DRL) contributed funds to ICFJ’s work.
Natasha informed me that when they started working in Egypt, it was at least a year before the Arab Spring began. They worked in Egypt focusing on training journalists and citizen journalists regardless of the political situation in the country. “If you have a good journalism base, it improves the society and gives people a better life; our work was not done because of politics, but to improve journalism worldwide.” She stated that all of their work was done through the help of local partners, while most of the people on the projects were Arab speakers with connections to the region. They collaborated with independent newspapers and also the Canadian university in Egypt. When I asked if the local partners and organizations made a stand in support of the NGOs when the sentencing ensued, Natasha told me that nothing was done. Many of the local actors were scared to be publicly involved with ICFJ and were worried the government would come after them.
Natasha explained that a campaign in the media was launched in July 2011 for the removal of NGOs in Egypt. This campaign was launched by the Minister of International Cooperation in Egypt, Ashraf El Araby. In December of 2011, ICFJ’s offices were raided and their papers were confiscated. Egyptian authorities took the names of various people who had signed contracts for ICFJ and decided to indict them. Overall, this trial period took about a year. She explained that this process was very arbitrary – regardless of involvement in ICFJ’s work, any names found in the paperwork were indicted on the same charges. After the sentencing of the 43 NGO workers, the media began calling those who did not appear in court ‘fugitives’ when they had not actually fled the country; they were simply out of the country at the time of the verdict.
Although the Egyptian government formally stated that these people were under arrest for receiving illicit funds and operating without a license, Natasha went into further detail about the logic behind the verdict. Since ICFJ was receiving funding from the US government, many thought this was as far as the reasoning went regarding illicit funds. Egyptian authorities claimed that money from the US government was not the issue – the claim was that the funding from the US government did not involve the Egyptian government like it was supposed to and was distributed immediately to local partners. The authorities made accusations such as “the NGOs are working with the Zionist enemy to overthrow the regime.” At first, ICFJ was told that they did not need to officially open an office or register as long as they were working with a local partner. Eventually, ICFJ was advised by others to open an office in Egypt. This process took forever, the Egyptian government kept asking for more and more documents to make it difficult for ICFJ to complete this process. While ICFJ was in the process of registering with the Egyptian government, they were indicted on charges of operating without a license. Natasha reiterated that Egyptian authorities claimed they were serving American interests in Egypt and working to destabilize the nation. The International Center for Journalists states publicly and privately that they are not a political organization and have no political motives.
Moving forward, I asked Natasha what she believes can be done to improve the current situation in Egypt. She explained that the current situation in Egypt is a very tricky one and that many people are afraid of going there to work. Some of Natasha’s associates refused to attend a conference in Egypt because they were worried that the Egyptian government would come after them. She does not foresee many positive developments in Egypt in the near future regarding the media because there is an environment of intimidation. The circumstances in Egypt would have to change in order for anything impactful to happen. Natasha insists that social media is the best way to advocate information sharing in countries where media exposure is restricted by the government. Social media helps people express themselves because you can sort of bypass governmental restrictions. Unblocking software can be used as a tool for people to express themselves. In regards to spreading large amounts of information, social media is being used to mobilize progress in ways it never could before.
Natasha believes that the United States should reassess its aid to Egypt in response to the Egyptian sentencing and shutting down of NGOs. She thinks the US should press Egypt for a pardon for the convicted NGO workers and work with these people to ease their troubles and family situations. In general, Natasha believes that shedding more light on these events will significantly help those impacted by recent events and might even spark significant support internationally. This echoes the message of Joyce Barnathan, President of ICFJ, that Egypt’s crackdown on civil society will continue to snowball unless governments express more outrage about the arrest of reporters there.[xiv]
From this case, we have learned that regime transitions are often more turbulent than they are smooth. The transition of a country from authoritarian rule to democracy is a long process with many road blocks, as we’ve seen in the case of Egypt. Non-governmental organizations must do their best to abide by legislation specific to where they are located, regardless if they have political motives or not. They must do their best to be open and cooperative with the local government in order to avoid conflicts like that of the International Center for Journalists’ in Egypt. If atrocities like this happen in the future, the global community must be ready to respond with outrage and persistence to send the message that this type of behavior is unacceptable in democracy-seeking nations.
[i] Al Youm, Al Masri. "Update: Court Jails Employees, Shuts down US-based NGOs | Egypt Independent." Update: Court Jails Employees, Shuts down US-based NGOs | Egypt Independent. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/update-court-jails-employees-shuts-....
[ii] Dakroury, Nourhan. "Convictions in NGO Trial 'a Disgrace'" Daily News Egypt RSS. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/04/convictions-in-ngo-trial-a-disg....
[iii] Dakroury, Nourhan. "Convictions in NGO Trial 'a Disgrace'" Daily News Egypt RSS. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/04/convictions-in-ngo-trial-a-disg....
[vi] Cummins, H.J. "The "Democratization of the Media" Leads to Greater Democracy in the Middle East | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." The "Democratization of the Media" Leads to Greater Democracy in the Middle East | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., 28 Feb. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/news/democratization-media-leads-greater-democracy-m....
[vii] Cummins, H.J. "The "Democratization of the Media" Leads to Greater Democracy in the Middle East | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." The "Democratization of the Media" Leads to Greater Democracy in the Middle East | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., 28 Feb. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/news/democratization-media-leads-greater-democracy-m....
[viii] Barnathan, Joyce. "Crackdown in Egypt: Lessons Learned by the International Center For Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." Crackdown in Egypt: Lessons Learned by the International Center For Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., 19 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/blogs/crackdown-egypt-lessons-learned-international-....
[ix] "On the Margins No More: Citizen Journalism Training for Egyptian Women and Youth | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." On the Margins No More: Citizen Journalism Training for Egyptian Women and Youth | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/content/margins-no-more-citizen-journalism-training-....
[x] "Public Service Journalism for Arabic-speaking Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." Public Service Journalism for Arabic-speaking Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/our-work/public-service-journalism-arabic-speaking-j....
[xi] "Public Service Journalism for Arabic-speaking Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." Public Service Journalism for Arabic-speaking Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/our-work/public-service-journalism-arabic-speaking-j....
[xii] "Unlocking the Economic Potential of Digital Media | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." Unlocking the Economic Potential of Digital Media | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/our-work/unlocking-economic-potential-digital-media>.
[xiii] "Unlocking the Economic Potential of Digital Media | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." Unlocking the Economic Potential of Digital Media | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/our-work/unlocking-economic-potential-digital-media>.
[xiv] Barnathan, Joyce. "Governments Must "Step Up and Speak Out" on Behalf of Al Jazeera Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." Governments Must "Step Up and Speak Out" on Behalf of Al Jazeera Journalists | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists. N.p., 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.icfj.org/news/governments-must-%25E2%2580%259Cstep-and-speak-...