An Egyptian Journalist's Nightmare

The ordeal of Yehia Ghanem, who was convicted in Egypt's notorious NGO trial.
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Activists, accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo on March 8, 2012. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

In a long and distinguished career in Egyptian journalism, Yehia Ghanem has been a foreign correspondent and an editor for Al-Ahram, the country's most respected newspaper. He has written four books, participated in international forums, and in recent years devoted much of his time to the training of younger journalists under a program directed by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). But on June 4, after a protracted trial in which he and several dozen other Egyptians with connections to foreign nonprofit organizations were accused of receiving illegal payments from abroad, Ghanem was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. Fortunately, in anticipation of an acquittal that his lawyers widely expected, Ghanem was in Washington when the verdict was rendered. Now a fugitive, Ghanem is cut off from his family, his livelihood, and with little hope for a return anytime soon unless he is pardoned, which seems unlikely given the vehemence of the judge's ruling in the case.

The ICFJ, based in Washington, conducts training programs in journalism around the world, supported by leading foundations, media companies, individuals, and the State Department. It began operating in Egypt in 2005, in association with universities and local media organizations. Efforts to gain registration of its own dragged on for years, stalled by bureaucracy, but seemed likely to gain momentum with the Arab Spring upheavals of 2010. Ghanem, his Egyptian colleague Islam Shafiq, and three nonresident Americans working with ICFJ planned to expand a program to train professional as well as citizen journalists in anticipation of Egypt's transition to democracy and greater prospects for independent reporting. With advice from their lawyers, ICFJ rented a small office and received a grant of about $900,000 from the State Department to upgrade the training programs under Ghanem's expert leadership. But the plans were abruptly halted in late 2011, when Egyptian security forces launched raids on ICFJ and the offices of three pro-democracy American nonprofits--the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and the National Democratic Institute--seizing files, computers, and cash. Also implicated was the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Among those subsequently charged were seven Americans who were allowed to leave Egypt after several months when the United States posted nearly $5 million in bail. But the cases against them proceeded, along with those of other Americans associated with the organizations who were not even in Egypt but were nonetheless convicted of receiving illegal foreign funds and sentenced "in absentia" to five years in jail. In all, 43 workers for nonprofit organizations were convicted in what had all the trappings of politically motivated prosecutions that reflected the strains between Egypt and the United States since the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak and led to the government of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The criminal verdict was especially harsh in its denunciation of the defendants and their association with U.S. organizations: "The court concluded in its ruling that one cannot imagine, by reason and logic, that the USA or other countries supporting the Zionist entity has any interest or a genuine desire for establishing a real democracy in Egypt." In his response to the trial, Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that the decision "runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy."

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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