The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today condemned the imprisonment of Egyptian journalists Hamdi al-Zaeem and Ahmed Khalifa.

Al-Zaeem, a freelance photojournalist, and Khalifa, a freelance reporter, have been detained in two separate cases since the beginning of January. According to news reports and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Al-Zaeem was arrested after authorities raided his home in Cairo on January 5. Days later it was announced that he was being held in a local hospital for COVID-19 patients in Cairo after testing positive for the virus. Khalifa was arrested after arriving at a police station on January 6. Earlier that day authorities had raided his home in Egypt’s Faiyum Governorate while Khalifa was not there. Police told his family that they wanted to question him. Khalifa is known for his articles about workers’ issues and labour protests.

Both journalists are charged with spreading false news and joining a terrorist organization. The state prosecutor’s office has ordered them both to be detained for 15 days pending trial. Al-Zaeem was charged on January 16  and Khalifa on January 19. Authorities have not provided concrete evidence for their accusations. It’s also unclear where al-Zaeem and Khalifa are currently being held. According to Gamal Eid, head of ANHRI, the pair are likely being detained in the notorious Tora prison south of Cairo. There was no information about Khalifa’s whereabouts until January 19 when he was charged.

Eid explained said that the charges against the two journalists may be similar to hundreds of other cases in which prosecutors do not move to actually act and finish the case. Rather, “the prosecution uses them for the purpose of imprisoning the accused and terrorizing them permanently”,  Eid told the International Press Institute (IPI).

Karim Abdelrady, a human rights lawyer who represents several detained journalists and human rights defenders in Egypt, told IPI today that it’s likely that al-Zaeem and Khalifa will be imprisoned for at least months.

“These cases never go to court. The State Security Prosecution is not an independent prosecutor and journalists are kept detained illegally for a long time. They can be imprisoned up to two years without getting a trial. And after two years the prosecutor charges them with new cases”, Karim told IPI. He said journalists often don’t have any idea which publication is the basis for the accusations against them.

Al-Zaeem was previously charged in September 2016 over a photo report on the hijab Islamic head covering. The charges against al-Zaeem included “joining a terrorist group with knowledges of its objectives”, broadcasting false news and incitement to demonstrate. He was imprisoned for two years and is still obligated to go to the police station two days a week.

According to IPI data collected as part of its #PressEgypt campaign, more than 60 journalists are currently imprisoned in Egypt. Prisons in the country are constantly overcrowded and prisoners are kept often under poor conditions. In July, journalist and editor Mohamed Mounir died after contracting COVID-19 while in pre-trial detention in Tora prison.

IPI member and Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein has been behind bars for over four years despite never having been charged, tried or convicted. He has been accused of broadcasting “fake news” and defaming state institutions and his imprisonment has been repeatedly and illegally extended by the Egyptian government. In December IPI sent an urgent appeal letter to Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi calling for Hussein’s immediate release.