CAIRO (Reuters) - Whenever Muslim Brotherhood journalist Islam Tawfiq files a story about the group’s struggle for survival for its newspaper Freedom and Justice, he fears his Internet address will tip off state security agents to his whereabouts.
Thousands of Brotherhood members have been arrested in a widening crackdown on the group since the army deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3.
Reporters for the newspaper, which still appears in a tiny fraction of its previous circulation, see themselves as the last people left to tell the Brotherhood’s side of the story in a country dominated by media that back the military crackdown.
The price, the journalists say, is an underground existence, moving from place to place, communicating from Internet cafes, rarely seeing family or friends.
“The greatest form of jihad is speaking up against an unjust authority,” Tawfiq, 27, said by telephone from an undisclosed location, citing the words of the Prophet Mohammad.
The Brotherhood, which won every election after the 2011 revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, has been on the defensive since Mursi’s downfall. Security forces crushed pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo, killing nearly 1,000 people, and forced many members underground.
Many Egyptians turned against the movement after Mursi gave himself sweeping powers and mismanaged the economy. They now revere the man who toppled Mursi, army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
“Part of my goal in my reporting is to fight the coup. Not literally with weapons and blood, but with my way of fighting... as a journalist,” said Tawfiq, a slight man with a close-cropped beard who joined the Brotherhood as a boy. “My hope is for my work to be stronger then Sisi’s bullets against Egyptians.”
The Brotherhood developed the skills of clandestine unarmed resistance under the iron rule of one Egyptian military-backed leader after another. This time, the government seems more determined than ever to crush it.
For the reporters, going to the newsroom to discuss stories with editors is no longer an option. Meeting sources in public is out of the question. Most live away from home and might not see their families for weeks at a time.
“It’s a charged environment. I expect that things will only get worse for us,” said reporter Mohamed el-Azouni, meeting in a Cairo restaurant. He had not seen his family in two months.
He and about 50 others produce Freedom and Justice. It used to be a 16-page daily but is now half that length because, since the arrest of Saad al-Katatni, chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party and the newspaper’s financier, it has no money.
“We don’t have access to our bank account,” said Azouni.
Reporters have not been paid in two months. The paper’s print run has been cut from 100,000 to 10,000, and it is now available only in Cairo, not in other towns and cities.
Editors, also in hiding, receive stories by email from reporters who often switch computers to avoid detection by state security agencies.
Assem Ahmed, a 26-year-old photographer for the paper, was one of more than 50 people killed when Republican Guardsmen fired on a pro-Mursi protest in July. His last image was video footage of the sniper firing the shot that killed him.
He was one of at least five journalists from all media killed since July 3.
A mystery is why the government, which has closed down Islamist television channels, still allows the paper to be printed on the presses of the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram.
Some suggest it may help keep tabs on the movement, in the knowledge that the paper is struggling to stay afloat and reaching only a small audience. It also could provide a defense against accusations that the government is suppressing dissent.
None of the paper’s staff are now jailed, but police raided the news director’s apartment on Saturday, according to Tawfiq, and men broke into the paper’s long-shuttered headquarters searching for information on the journalists.
Rights groups say the climate for local and foreign journalists reporting in Egypt has deteriorated sharply since Mursi was toppled.
On Tuesday a Cairo court ordered the switching off of the main source of news in Egypt that challenged the government’s line and reported on Brotherhood demonstrations: a channel of Egypt news from Qatar-based pan-Arab network Al Jazeera.
Three Al Jazeera journalists were expelled from Egypt on Sunday. Several others have been detained, and the station’s offices in Egypt have been raided. Al Jazeera complains that its satellite signal has been jammed .
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said last Friday that it knew of 10 journalists in detention, nine raids on news organizations, and at least 64 temporary detentions, assaults or confiscations.
The CPJ’s Sherif Mansour said the government had been working to “increase censorship and increase the divide in the media and partisan alignment against the Brotherhood”.
The government says any arrests of journalists have been for inciting violence, not for their editorial work.
Despite what seems like overwhelming odds, the Brotherhood’s newspaper is still focused on efforts to reverse what it calls a military coup against an elected government. One story this week quoted relatives of top Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie saying he appeared healthy during a prison visit after a report that he had suffered a heart attack.
Political cartoons attack Sisi, the military chief now depicted as a hero in posters across Cairo. One shows him smashing helpless people with his fists.
“This is the definitely the first showing of Sisi as a butcher in the Egyptian press that I‘m aware of,” said Jonathan Guyer, a scholar researching political cartoons in Egypt.
Almost daily, the paper publishes photographs of Brotherhood “martyrs” killed by security forces at protest camps.
“When a paper is eight pages and the whole centerfold is the names of ‘martyrs’ ... that is an incredible example of resistance,” said Guyer.
Azouni, the reporter, lost his laptop and camera while running for his life at a protest where security forces fired live rounds. He has to borrow computers from friends, or move from one Internet cafe to another.
“We want to reach everyone in every place, in every house, everywhere. We are the voice of those who don’t have a voice,” he said, looking nervously around him for state security agents.
“We are their only voice.”
Editing by Michael Georgy, Kevin Liffey and Peter Graff