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The arrest today of the head of the Egyptian Press Syndicate and two colleagues is an alarming setback for freedom of expression and the most brazen attack on the media the country witnessed in decades, said Amnesty International.

Yahia Galash, head of Press Syndicate and senior board members Khaled Elbalshy and Gamal Abd el-Reheem were summoned for questioning on May 29 by the public prosecution. After 13 hours of questioning, the three men were charged with “harboring suspects against whom an arrest warrant has been issued” and “publishing false news, which threatens public peace, related to their arrest.” The prosecution ordered that the three men be put in custody, with bail set at 10,000 Egyptian pounds (USD$1,123), which they have refused to pay. 

“The arrest of key media figures at the Press Syndicate signals a dangerous escalation of the Egyptian authorities’ draconian clampdown on freedom of expression and demonstrates the extreme measures the authorities are prepared to take in order to tighten their iron grip on power,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.

Successive Egyptian governments have attempted to control the media and impose restrictions on journalists but on May 1 up to 40 heavily armed members of the National Security agency stormed the Press Syndicate for the first time since it was established in 1941. They attacked journalists, beat security guards and detained two journalists: Amro Badr and Mahmoud Al-Saqqa. They have been charged with forming an illegal group with the aim of overthrowing the government, inciting protests and publishing false news, and belonging to the April 6 Movement, a leading youth group that was instrumental in organizing protests in 2011.

Under Egyptian law, permission from the Public Prosecutor is required in order to search the Press Syndicate premises and any search must be carried out in the presence of the head of the Syndicate or other senior management.

“The storming of the Press Syndicate earlier this month was unprecedented. It is the most brazen attack on the media the country has seen in decades. The Egyptian authorities appear to be prepared to breach their own laws in their chilling attempt to crush all signs of dissent,” said Mughrabi.

At least 20 journalists are currently behind bars in Egypt imprisoned carrying out their legitimate journalistic work, according to the Egyptian Press Syndicate.