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Egypt Cracks Down On Protesters; Pressures Journalists

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. The news media in Egypt has been targeted again by that government. In the latest move, a court sentenced the head of the national journalist union and also two members of the union's board to two years in prison. NPR's Jane Arraf in Cairo spoke to one of the men who's now out on bail.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The case goes back to a protest in April outside the journalists' union. About 2,000 people were demonstrating against the government's decision to hand over two small islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, which provides aid to Egypt. It ended with the government tear gassing and arresting protesters. The government accused two journalists working for an opposition website that had supported the protests of trying to destabilize Egypt. The journalists went to the Union for help. While they were inside, police, for the first time in the union's 75-year history, raided the offices and arrested the two men. Police charged the head of the journalists' union, Yahya Qallash, and two board members with harboring fugitives. Last weekend, a court sentenced the three men to two years in jail. They're out on bail, and Qallash tells NPR they're appealing the sentence.

YAHYA QALLASH: (Through interpreter) This sentence, which carried the maximum punishment, was based on an accusation with no foundation. Any head of the union would do what we did.

ARRAF: The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists says Egypt is second only to China in jailing journalists. Qallash says there are now 27 journalists serving time in prison or in jail awaiting trial. Things have always been tough here for journalists, but Qallash tells us they're getting even tougher.

QALLASH: (Through interpreter) The shocking, violent verdict issued gives the impression to a lot of journalists and even normal citizens that this is the kind of narrowing of the borders of freedom and a narrowing of the profession of journalism.

ARRAF: The government, which took power in a military coup three years ago, has essentially banned protests - it says for security reasons. Most Egyptians say they don't want to see another revolution. But some worry that the government is choking the life out of public freedom.

GAMAL EID: We are in the worst situation since Egypt independence.

ARRAF: Gamal Eid is with the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. It advocates for freedom of expression in the Arab world. He calls Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government a dictatorship.

EID: It's a scandal.

ARRAF: A scandal, he says. The government has banned him from traveling outside Egypt and frozen his bank account. He says there are 12 court cases pending against him and the organization on charges including disturbing public peace and harming national security. As for the Red Sea Islands that sparked the initial demonstration, an Egyptian court has ruled that Sisi's government does not have the authority to just hand them over to Saudi Arabia. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.