“The Rabaa Operations Room was not how we used to refer to the case at first. That name was only given to it after the case was referred to court,” said lawyer Ahmed Helmy, who is working on the case. “We used to call it the ‘media personnel’ case because it has many journalists and media workers, but later it was expanded to include the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, and high-ranking members of the group.”
In the case, 51 defendants are charged with “forming an operations room to direct the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group to defy the government during the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in dispersal and to spread chaos in the country”, according to a statement released by the Prosecutor General’s office.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, and 50 other defendants have stood trial since April 2014 in case number 2210/2014, referred to as the ‘Rabaa Operations Room’ case. The case is headed by Judge Nagy Shehata, who is also presiding over four other high-profile cases including the ‘Cabinet Clashes’ and Al Jazeera trial.
There are 12 journalists and media workers incriminated in the case, according to Abdullah Al-Fakharany, one of the detained journalists in the case. Defendants include journalists, who worked with established newspapers including Youm7 and Al-Karama newspaper, as well as correspondents and top managers in satellite channels such as Ahrar 25, Misr 25 and Al-Aqsa channel. Most of those channels were covering the events of Rabaa Al-Adaweya Square, according to Helmy.
Two journalists detained in the case work for Rassd News Network: Abdullah Al-Fakharany, founding member of Rassd Network; and Rassd’s Executive Director Samhi Mostafa. Mohamed Al-Adly, a presenter on the Islamist Amgad channel, and Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan are also detained in the same case.
These four defendants were arrested in the home of Mohamed Soltan, who is also son of Muslim Brotherhood leader Salah Soltan. They face a range of charges, with some related to their work in the media sector, while other charges are related to them “joining a terrorist organisation”. The three journalists, alongside with Mohamed Soltan, are held in Tora Prison, southeast of Cairo.
Lawyer Ahmed Helmy defends the four defendants above, along with Salah Soltan, Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mourad Mohamed Ali, and Youssef Talaat.
Al-Fakharany shares one prison cell with three other journalists, Samhi Mostafa, Mohamed Al-Adly and Mosaad Al-Barbary, head of Ahrar 25 channel.
Accusations include the “broadcasting and spreading [of] false information” in the coverage of fatalities and injuries sustained during the dispersal of the sit-ins in August 2013. This was allegedly done with the intent of harming national security and influencing international public opinion.
The defendants also face charges of joining a terrorist group, damaging public and private property, and incitement of violence by sending groups of Muslim Brotherhood members to create chaos and panic.
Referring to the charges, Helmy believes that the most important ones for his defendants are those related to their work as journalists, whereas the other charges are “meaningless”, raising doubts about the constitutionality of the some of those charges.
Regarding their arrest, there was a procedural error pertaining to the order of arrest, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression’s (AFTE) report on imprisoned journalists in 2014. AFTE’s lawyer Ahmed Abdelnaby was mentioned in the report, saying that the defendants were arrested on 21 August, while it appears from the case documents that the order of arrest was issued on 25 August. This entails the defendants were in the custody of homeland security prior to the order of arrest by four days, which is considered illegal. Lawyer Ahmed Helmy confirmed this.
According to the prosecution’s investigations, the Muslim Brotherhood formed several media centres to support their plot, among which are Rassd, anchors at Amgad channel, the 25 January Channel, editors in Ikhwan Online and Ikhwan Weekly, Nafezet Masr, and Journalists for Stability and using these centres to spread lies with regards to the military and the government.
“During the trial sessions, we asked the court to point out exactly which pieces of news were being referred to in the case so as to be able to assess those claims, but the CD containing the evidence was not presented by the prosecution,” explained Helmy.
Helmy added that media coverage of court cases in general is not good enough, as journalists usually do not have access to the courts, and only certain “pro-regime” newspapers are allowed to enter.
Further, when the case was enlarged to include top Brotherhood officials and further charges were levelled against the defendants, the case received less media coverage regarding the several media workers and journalists detained for their work in the case, according to Al-Fakharany’s official Facebook page.
“A technical committee was mandated by the court to assess whether the news and videos gathered as evidence were manipulated or not, and the committee presented its findings to the court confirming that they haven’t been manipulated but journalists attending the session did not report this,” added Helmy. “So we rely on citizen journalists and alternative platforms to spread the news.”
“On the surface it is litigation, but in essence it is a political struggle between two regimes,” Helmy added, referring to what he perceives as the targeting of media personnel who were involved one way or the other with the Brotherhood.
Egyptian news site Rassd News Network (RNN) is a Deutsche Welle (DW) Akademie partner. Since 2011, several citizen journalists and managers, including Mustafa and Al-Fakharany, have participated in DW Akademie trainings and workshops. RNN started as an alternative news source shortly before the beginning of the 2011 Arab uprisings, and it has built a network of citizen journalists all over Egypt, as well as in other Arab countries.
Since the military-led ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, RNN’s reputation has fallen alongside that of the group it gives a voice to the Brotherhood. As the channel focused its media coverage on anti-regime protests and constantly refers to the mass protests of 30 June as a ‘military coup’, it has become more marginalised in the Egyptian public sphere and increasingly indentified along other more radical Islamist media.
Numerous Islamist TV channels were banned from airing via Egypt’s NileSat and were ordered to shut down their Cairo offices, including Ahrar 25, Al-Nas, and Al-Hafez directly after Morsi’s ouster on 3 July 2013.
Egypt is currently holding at least 63 Egyptian journalists in prison, according to a report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). It also landed in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of the top 10 worst jailers of journalists along with Eritrea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Syria, Burma, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Between January and May 2014, 44 journalists were detained, as well as 107 cases of injury and physical assault on journalists and reporters in the course of their work, according to a report published by AFTE. In August 2013, RNN photographer Musaab Al-Shami was shot dead as security forces dispersed the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Egypt third among the most dangerous countries for journalists in 2013. Reporters Without Borders named it one of the five worst countries for jailing journalists in 2014.
The next trial session of the ‘Rabaa Operations Room’ case is scheduled to take place Monday to hear the defence of the remaining defendants. Helmy predicts that a verdict in the case might be reached by May if trial sessions continue to be held at the same rate. However, the fate of the defendants in the final verdict seems little promising in the highly politicised case.