A media nonprofit organization convicted in Egypt for using foreign aid funds to try to overthrow the government and foment unrest in the country had not even started the program for which it was indicted.
The case of the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists illustrates the dire situation of foreign-funded NGOs in Egypt, where 43 local and foreign staff members were sentenced last week to jail terms for receiving illegal funds and operating without a license in the wake of the popular revolt that brought down former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
“In our case, our big problem was that in this window of time, we actually opened an office in Cairo,” ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan told Devex. “We have trained journalists in previous programs. But in this particular time frame involved, it hasn’t started.”
Project never started
Barnathan said her group normally works with local partners, but recently set up a country office in Cairo to make the accreditation process easier.
“We opened the office because we had a little bit more work there and our lawyers said that we’re definitely going to be accredited if we open an office and show activity,” she explained. “And we happened to have opened an office right at that time and we got held.”
ICFJ — which trains and provides new tools for journalists to raise their professional skills — pulled out of Egypt immediately after the filing of charges against their employees, which initially came as a surprise to the organization.
“We had very, very good Egyptian partners, and in fact, for the program that they supposedly convicted us for, the state newspaper al-Ahram. So you know they wanted to work with us,” she told Devex.
And when the charges were filed, Barnathan expected an accquital because the foreign-funded program mentioned in the indictment never got beyond the planning stage.
“We have not even started the program that they said was an issue,” she said. “These people [did not do] any work on that program. It’s amazing. And we haven’t trained a single journalist yet.”
ICFJ: Ruling sets bad precedent
Last week’s ruling — which sparked an outcry among the aid community and Western governments — endangered the lives of the people involved, according to the ICFJ president.
“The human cost of this is not to be underestimated. We have people now if they go back to Egypt they’ll get arrested if they set foot in the country,” she said. “They have their families crying because they are not together now.”
Barnathan also believes her group was part of the collateral damage in a dispute between the Egyptian and U.S. governments that strained bilateral relations but has so far not jeopardized U.S. aid to the country.
“All I can say is that if you’re an NGO working in Egypt now, there’s very little recourse for you if there’s a political problem that they don’t like, because you can’t [take] sides,” Barnathan said.
The verdict, she added, sets a bad precedent and might be replicated in other countries that “would like to crack down on civil society groups.”
An April 2013 report by U.N. special rapporteur Maina Kiai said that “in recent years, civil society actors have been facing increased control and undue restrictions in relation to funding they received, or allegedly received.”
Those restrictions, Kiai noted, are meant to silence the voices of dissent and critics in countries such as Algeria, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Egypt, Jordan, Russia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
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