Prosecutors on Monday referred the head of Egypt's journalists union and two board members to trial after they were formally charged with spreading false news and harboring journalists wanted by authorities. A statement by the Cairo prosecution office said their trial would begin on Saturday. The three were questioned for hours by prosecutors Sunday night. On Monday, they refused to post bail of 10,000 pounds ($1,000) each and were detained at a police station in central Cairo, Khaled el-Balshy, one of the board members facing prosecution, and defense lawyer Sayed Abu Zeid told The Associated Press. "We refused to pay because the accusations are related to publishing news and that should not involve imprisonment or bail," said el-Balshy. The prosecution office said the three were released late Monday without posting bail. The three journalists could face prison if convicted. Amnesty International condemned the legal proceedings against the three, describing the accusations they face as a "dangerous escalation" and part of the government's "draconian" crackdown on freedom of expression.
The move against the three came less than a month after the head of the union, Yahya Qalash, called for the interior minister's resignation and a presidential apology over an alleged police raid to snatch two journalists wanted for inciting protests who had taken refuge inside the union's building in downtown Cairo. Authorities deny the allegation that police forcibly entered the building, saying they had an arrest warrant and coordinated in advance with union board members. Qalash, the union's head, later sought to ease the tense standoff with the government, dropping his demand for a presidential apology and not repeating his demand for the minister to step down.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government has significantly curbed many of the freedoms Egyptians won following the country's 2011 popular uprising, defending a 2013 law that effectively bans street protests and repeatedly stating that Egypt's human rights record must not be judged by Western standards. Pro-government media routinely defames critics and brands any opposition as either treason or motived by clandestine support for the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of the country, el-Sissi ousted in 2013, hails. Union officials said at the time that police had stormed the building for the first time in its 75-year history. The interior ministry denied that but confirmed police had arrested Sakka and Badr, who work for the opposition website Bawabet Yanayer and were wanted on criminal charges.
On Monday, el-Sissi again showed a desire to extend government influence to the media and entertainment industry. He spoke at an inauguration ceremony for a new housing project in Cairo for low-income Egyptians. The project is a substitute model for the shanty towns that ring the Egyptian capital and are often depicted in movies as violent, crime infested and morally degenerate areas. "The claim through movies that their residents are different is inappropriate, paints a negative picture and divides society," he said. "Those people are well bred and have morals and values ... We should not allow them (the movies) and they should not be produced." It was not clear how the president's directive would be implemented since film-making is in the hands of private production companies. Egypt has a state censor who must approve the script of any new movie before it is shot, although cases where the censor rejected a script are rare.