Sydney PEN has just signed onto a letter of support for Australian journalist Austin Mackell who was arrested last week by Egyptian authorities, along with an American student, their translator and their taxi driver. Mackell was released on 14 February 2012, but faces charges of “inciting vandalism” and possible deportation from Egypt.
The letter is below. If you would like to sign on, please email Elizabeth Humphrys.
Dear Foreign Minister,
Austin Mackell is a young freelance journalist, who moved to Egypt in February last year. His writings have been featured in respected media outlets across the world, including The Guardian, Al-Akhbar, Crikey and newmatilda.
On February 11, Mackell, his translator, Aliya Alwi, US masters student Derek Ludovici, and taxi driver Zakaria Ahmad drove to Mahalla al- Kubra. They sought to interview Kamal el-Fayoumi, a well known trade unionist and labour activist. Upon arriving, they were attacked and threatened by a small mob. They were instructed by a police officer to come to a police station for their own protection.
Over the next 56 hours, they were held in custody. They were all repeatedly interrogated.
During this time, they were allowed minimal communication with the outside world. Some courageous Egyptian activists, like Shahira Abouelleil, Kareem el-Behairy, and Omar Kamel, followed the detainees, tweeted of their location to the outside world, and brought along lawyers and journalists to help them. They also provided the detainees with food.
The four detainees have been charged with “inciting people to vandalise public property and governmental buildings”. Specifically it is alleged they promised children money if they threw rocks at the Qism El-Tani police station in Mahalla. If convicted, they face imprisonment for 5-7 years.
Since their release, they have faced ongoing threats and harassment. The police released their reports to the state media. Consequently, their faces and addresses were featured in the media across Egypt, accusing them of being spies. It has become unsafe for Mackell to live in, or even visit, his old apartment. Mackell’s passport, camera, laptop, and external hard drive have been confiscated, along with 800 Egyptian pounds he had at his apartment. His flatmate’s camera was also confiscated, along with Alwi’s mobile phone, and money from both Alwi and Ludovici. Mackell is also concerned that personal information on his computer will be copied, compromising his work as a journalist and possibly placing his sources at risk.
The charges against the group are hard to credit. It is worth considering why they may have been brought.
Mackell has reported critically on the at times brutal suppression of protesters by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), currently ruling Egypt. For example, in a newmatilda article on 17 June, 2011, Mackell wrote critically of military tribunals, saying that some are “simply appallingly unfair trials in which harsh sentences are delivered quickly and easily. Some, however, are also clearly part of an ongoing campaign of intimidation that the army has been waging against critical voices here in Egypt.” In an article on 13 October, 2011, Mackell wrote that SCAF opposed Egypt’s “democratic blossoming”, as they are “at the core of the corrupt economic elite that is threatened by the leftward shift likely to accompany the election of a populist government.” In one of his most recent articles, before his arrest, Mackell chronicled the clashes between SCAF and Egypt’s protest movement. His article concluded with a condemnation of the Egyptian military’s “brutality, stupidity and incompetence in dealing with protests in Tahrir”.
Fayoumi is a long-time labour activist from Mahalla, who first went on strike against factory working conditions in 1988. Mahalla’s labour activism, in particular from December 2006 to the general strike called for April 6 2008, inspired much of the country. This includes the April 6 movement, who played the major role in organising the massive January 25 protests that wound up overthrowing Mubarak.
It appears that the persecution of Mackell in particular is to intimidate independent journalists who would be interested in reporting on Egypt’s labour movement, particularly in Mahalla.
So far, no Australian Foreign Minister has said a word about all of this. Your predecessor, Mr Kevin Rudd, said not a word in defence of the rights of Mackell, even though he is an Australian citizen. Unlike the Egyptian activists who struggled to support Mackell, Ludovici, Alwi and Ahmad, Rudd was silent.
When the Egyptians were struggling to overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship, Rudd also failed to say a word in support of their struggle. However, in March 2011, when speaking about the Middle East, he said “Australia, of course shares values with those who seek to widen the tent of democracy across the world. These are the values of freedom of speech and assembly, and a commitment to open and transparent government.”
Foreign Minister, will you speak out and defend the rights of freedom of speech and assembly in Egypt? Will you defend the right of an Australian journalist to report freely in another country? Will you defend Mackell and his associates against these plainly politicised charges? Will you campaign for their rights? As a leading figure in Australia’s Labor Party, will you defend the right of a labour activist to associate with sympathetic journalists?
Foreign Minister, Austin Mackell is an Australian citizen who urgently needs your help. Are you going to commit to the values of freedom of speech and assembly?