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For 75 years, Egypt's journalist union has been the front line for the defense of freedom of expression in Egypt. Today, its members say it's under attack. The head of the union and two board members will stand trial this weekend in what Amnesty International calls the most brazen attack on the media in Egypt in decades. Leila Fadel has this report.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Khaled el-Balshy greets a fellow journalist with two kisses on the cheek and a hearty handshake in his office. He's just been released on bail after being charged with harboring fugitives and publishing false news. Balshy is the undersecretary of the journalist union in Egypt, also called the Press Syndicate. And he, the head of the union and another board member may be going to prison.
KHALED EL-BALSHY: (Through interpreter) It's a crazy time. Anything could happen. In my opinion, we are facing a tyrannical regime, an old form of dictatorship.
FADEL: Here's why the union is in trouble with the government. Last month, the building was raided by dozens of security forces with arrest warrants for two journalists accused of staging anti-government protests. The union got angry, called for sit-ins and demanded the minister of interior's resignation. So now, the leaders of the syndicate say they are being punished. They're facing trial, accused of fabricating the news related to the arrests and hiding the two journalists from the law.
Why is this happening to you?
BALSHY: (Foreign language spoken).
FADEL: He says historically, every Egyptian leader has tried to break the union because the syndicate takes difficult stances. But the new regime's tactics are unprecedented, maybe because the union criticized the broad terrorism law that would see journalists or dissenters prosecuted for, quote, "disturbing public order" or heavily fined for the so-called publishing of false news - or because it defends imprisoned journalists - or because the syndicate was the gathering point for recent anti-government protests. And right now, Balshy says, there is no freedom of expression in Egypt.
BALSHY: (Through interpreter) They want to silence the union by breaking into it, by besieging it and now, by putting the head of the union and board member on trial for the first time in history.
FADEL: But, Balshy says, it's not working. In fact, it's mobilizing people.
BALSHY: (Through interpreter) Now even those of our members who used to keep silent and just watch are saying no, this can't happen.
FADEL: In the lobby of the syndicate headquarters, political cartoons hang on bulletin boards. In one, two policemen arrest a figure shaped out of Arabic words. In another, the police drag a bleeding pen on the ground. Signs hanging on the wall say the dignity of journalists is a red line. Sherif Mansour is the Committee to Protect Journalists' Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.
SHERIF MANSOUR: This is the worst time to be a journalist in Egypt for many reasons.
FADEL: The worst time to be a journalist in Egypt, he says. And the clash with the syndicate isn't happening in a vacuum. There are constant reports of travel bans on activists, journalists, human right defenders or academics. One photojournalist was detained for some two years before being charged. And now he's caught up in a mass trial.
Recently, an accredited French journalist with a valid visa and press card was deported after he tried to return from vacation. And after China, CPJ says, Egypt is the top jailer of journalists. And now, Mansour says, the state is going after the one body in Egypt that defends journalists' rights. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.
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