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Egyptian journalist under military interrogation for “harming national security”

Hossam Bahgat receiving Human Rights Watch's annual award. Flickr/EIPR. Some rights reserved.Journalist and human rights activist Hossam Bahgat is scheduled to face
military prosecution on Wednesday for investigating a secret military trial in mid-October.

On Monday, the military prosecution ordered the detention of Bahgat for
four days pending investigations into charges of “publishing false information
that harms national security" and “publishing information that endangers public
well-being”, accusations often used to legally prosecute journalists and
writers.

Bahgat’s reports “threaten military security”, stated military spokesman
Mohamed Samir. He is being prosecuted under Article 102 (bis) and Article 188
of the Penal Code, Samir said.

Bahgat is detained at an unknown location, lawyer and human rights
activist Negad El-Borai said. “Most probably he is with [military]
intelligence,” said Borai.

Bahgat’s latest investigation, ‘A coup busted?’, delved into the
military trial of 26 officers accused of plotting to overthrow the current
regime in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“In Egypt, it is forbidden to discuss
the military, despite the absence of a law which stipulates this,” said lawyer
Mohamed ElBaqqar.

Bahgat’s defence was that the
investigation is professional and devoid of any personal opinion, based on the
case documents, the court ruling and interviews with the accused officers’
families, said ElBaqqar. “Most of the cases related to media are politicised”,
ElBaqqar stated.

The constitution prohibits detention for
publication cases, said journalist Khaled ElBalshy. “Bahgat’s detention is
alarming,” he declared.

The state is sending a message to the
media that it will not tolerate opposition of the regime in any way, said Ragia
Omran, human rights lawyer and co-founder of the No Military Trials for Civilians
group.

The arrest comes shortly after
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s speech at the beginning of November in which
he condemned media criticism of him. “This is a crackdown on media in various
ways,” Omran said.

The state is also trying to distract
people from the Russian plane crash incident and the emergency situation in
Alexandria and other governorates severely affected by rain, Omran said.

Bahgat, an investigative reporter at Mada Masr independent news website, was
summoned by military intelligence for questioning on Thursday. The summons he
received at his home in Alexandria gave no reasons. He arrived at military intelligence
headquarters in Cairo at 9am on Sunday. Ten hours later Bahgat was transferred
to military prosecution to be interrogated.

Bahgat founded local NGO the Egyptian
Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in 2002 and directed it until 2013. He
was a visiting scholar at Columbia Journalism School in the U.S. from 2014 to 2015.

A recipient of Human Rights Watch's
Alison Des Forges Award in 2011, Bahgat’s recent work also includes looking
into the ‘Arab
Sharkas cell’ case, for which six were hanged in May following military prosecution. His
article, ‘Who
let the jihadis out?’ investigated those responsible for the pardon of
Islamists post-2011.

“The Egyptian military cannot continue to consider itself above the law
and immune from criticism,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and
North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, in a statement released by
Amnesty on Sunday.

The statement continues that the
arrest “is a clear signal of the Egyptian authorities’ resolve to continue with
their ferocious onslaught against independent journalism and civil society”.

The US State Department announced that they have seen news reports concerning the arrest, and are “closely following” the case. The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, expressed “concern” over the detention of Bahgat, who is a member of UNDP's Global Civil Society Advisory Council. “This is just the latest in a series of detentions of human rights defenders and others that are profoundly worrying to the Secretary-General,” stated the UN on Monday.

Sixty-two journalists are
currently in Egyptian prisons, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights
Information (ANHRI). ANHRI was among the organisations calling on the Egyptian
authorities to release Bahgat and to drop accusations pressed against him. The Committee
to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called for his release, counting 18
journalists behind bars.

“Egypt has used arrests, legislation,
and threats in an attempt to control the media and prevent independent
reporting, particularly on matters of security and terrorism,” the CPJ said on Sunday.

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