He helped raise a generation of journalists in the Middle East to provide local voices. Now the Egyptian government calls one of the country’s longest-serving journalists a terrorist.

The 65-year-old veteran Egyptian journalist, Tawfik Ghanem was on his way to Friday prayers at the Essam el deen mosque in Giza, a city just a few kilometres outside of Cairo, when the country's feared security forces arrested him at the doorstep of his home.

In the following five days after his arrest on May 21, 2021, Ghanem's family and friends didn't know whether he was dead or alive, according to people with knowledge of the situation that TRT World has spoken with.

They wouldn't know his fate for another five days. 

Ghanem's home was raided, and according to Human Rights Watch, his laptop and mobile phone were seized without a warrant. 

"We still have no idea why he has been arrested," said a longtime student of Ghanem who wished to remain anonymous for fear of regime reprisals. 

Even as practising journalism in Egypt became increasingly perilous, according to those that know Ghanem, he chose to remain in the country rather than leave. In 2015 he retired rather than compromise on his work. 

"He is a patriotic man," said his student to TRT World, adding that Ghanem was a "visionary journalist" whose life goal was to establish a regional and international media organisation that belonged to the Middle East and reflects the region's voice, not a branch of the BBC or CNN. 

The veteran journalist cultivated a generation of journalists from the region that now work in Reuters, Al Jazeera and the BBC. 

"He dedicated his life to establishing a new generation of journalists and media professionals in the region," added his student. 

The rulers that govern Egypt, however, have a different vision.

In late 2016 Ghanem found out that he had been placed on a "terrorist" list by the Egyptian regime. The list, according to its critics, is a tool used against anyone that could challenge or speak against crimes committed by the state. 

At best, the designation is a sword of Damocles that hangs over the accused keeping them in a constant state of paranoia. 

The Egyptian government argues that such tools are necessary to fight terrorism as the country grapples with an insurgency threat in the Sinai.

For Ghanem, the designation meant that he was well and truly in the crosshairs of authorities that have worked tirelessly to quash any semblance of dissent. 

Following the "terrorist" designation, the Egyptian state confiscated most of Ghanem's assets. The battle to regain those assets is ongoing.

Crimes against state security

Ghanem's arrest came "out of the blue," according to those close to the journalist. 

On his sixth day of captivity, Ghanem appeared in front of the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), a special branch of the Public Prosecution's office responsible for crimes that relate to "state security." It was the first time that anyone had seen or heard from Ghanem. 

Amnesty International has called the SSSP a "tool of repression" that issues recently enacted counter-terrorism legislation to "detain individuals for acts that should not even be criminalised, such as peacefully expressing critical views of the authorities, engaging in human rights work or waving a rainbow flag."

Once in custody, Ghanem was questioned by Egyptian authorities about his previous journalistic work, political views and in particular about his time at Anadolu Agency (AA), the international Turkish wire news agency headquartered in Ankara.

From 2012 to 2015, Ghanem had helped establish the Arabic and English desk that would cover the region. 

As relations between Ankara and Cairo nosedived following Turkey's condemnation of the military coup in 2013, anyone affiliated with Turkey was criminalised. 

AA closed down its office in Cairo, and Ghanem remained in the country. He tried to continue his journalism, however, that became increasingly untenable as Egypt's security atmosphere deteriorated. 

"If he couldn't practice objective journalism, he would retire," said his student. 

'Keeping him in the fridge'

Egyptian authorities are meant to review Ghanem's case every 15 days, however, after his first court hearing on May 26, there has been little in the way of progress. 

"They are keeping him in the fridge," said Ghanem's student. In Egypt, the Orwellian term has become synonymous with authorities waiting to decide what to do with a captive after they have been arrested and before any charges or trial has begun. 

While Ghanem waits in the fridge, there have been several Covid-19 cases in the prison he's being held in, including deaths. Ghanem is a diabetic and has several other ailments that put him at higher risk of contracting the virus and becoming severely ill from it. 

Yet, some of Ghanem's former journalist mentees outside the country are willing to publicly speak up about what's happened to the Egyptian journalist. 

Dalia Yusuf left Egypt in 2014 after the counter-revolution, feeling unsafe about her ability to practice her profession. 

"I was shocked and devastated," says Yusuf about Ghanem's incarceration in Egypt. 

For Yusuf, who now lives in the US, Ghanem was an important figure who mentored her in her craft. 

"Sadly, detaining journalists in Egypt without formal charge or trial is not new," she said, speaking to TRT World

"Mr Tawfik has had a great role in my life on professional and personal levels. Now, the arbitrary detention of journalists has become more personal for me," she added. 

Numerous international organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have picked up Ghanem's case and urged the Egyptian state to release the journalist. 

Arresting journalists “is a defining characteristic of authoritarian regimes," said Yusuf, adding that the latest arrest "signals the criminalisation of free journalism. In this context, no one is immune, even retired journalists."

Source: TRT World