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By Shahira Amin / 31 January 2014
Statement: Egyptian authorities must stop their attacks on media freedom from Article 19, the Committee to Project Journalists, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders
Twenty journalists working for the Al Jazeera TV network will stand trial in Egypt on charges of spreading false news that harms national security and assisting or joining a terrorist cell.
Sixteen of the defendants are Egyptian nationals while four are foreigners: a Dutch national, two Britons and Australian Peter Greste, a former BBC Correspondent. The chief prosecutor’s office released a statement on Wednesday saying that several of the defendants were already in custody; the rest will be tried in absentia.The names of the defendants, however, were not revealed. The case marks the first time journalists in Egypt have faced trial on terrorism-related charges, drawing condemnation from rights groups and fueling fears of a worsening crackdown on press freedom in Egypt .
“This is an insult to the law,” said Gamal Eid, a rights lawyer and head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. “If there is justice in Egypt , courts would not be used to settle political scores”, he added.
In December, the government designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. It has since widened its heavy-handed crackdown on Brotherhood supporters, targeting pro-democracy activists, journalists and anyone considered remotely sympathetic to the outlawed Islamist group.
In a move seen by rights advocates as a blow to freedom of expression, most Islamist channels were shut down by the Egyptian authorities almost immediately after Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was toppled in July. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera is one of the few remaining networks perceived by the authorities as sympathetic to Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Once praised by Egyptians as the “voice of the people” for its coverage before and during the 2011 mass protests that led to the removal of autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power, Al Jazeera has since seen its popularity dwindle in Egypt. Since Morsi’s ouster by military-backed protests in July, Qatar has been the target of media and popular wrath because of its backing for the Brotherhood. Allegations by the state controlled and private pro-government media that Qatar was”plotting to undermine Egypt’s stability” has inflamed public anger against the Qatar-funded network, prompting physical and verbal attacks by Egyptians on the streets on journalists suspected of working for Al Jazeera.
The Al Jazeera Arabic service and its Egyptian affiliate Mubasher Misr were the initial targets of a government crackdown on the network and have had their offices ransacked by security forces a number of times. In recent months however, the crackdown on the network has escalated, targeting journalists working for the Al Jazeera English service as well despite a general perception among Egyptians that the latter is “more balanced and fair” in its coverage of the political crisis in Egypt.
The Al Jazeera network has denied any biases on its part and has repeatedly called on Egypt to release its detained staff. According to a statement released by Al Jazeera on Wednesday, the allegations made by Egypt’s chief prosecutor against its journalists are “absurd, baseless and false.”
“This is a challenge to free speech, to the right of journalists to report on all aspects of events, and to the right of people to know what is going on.” the statement said.
Three members of an Al Jazeera English (AJE) TV crew were arrested in a December police raid on their makeshift studio in a Cairo luxury hotel and have remained in custody for a month without charge. Both Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy — the channel’s bureau chief –and producer Baher Mohamed have been kept in solitary confinement in the Scorpion high security prison reserved for suspected terrorists and dangerous criminals. An investigator in the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press said Fahmy was an alleged member of a terror group and had been fabricating news to tarnish Egypt’s image abroad.
Earlier this week, Fahmy’s brother, Sherif, complained that treatment of his brother had taken a turn for the worse and that prison guards had taken away his watch, blanket and writing materials.
Peter Greste, the only non-Egyptian member of the AJE team has meanwhile, been held at Torah Prison in slightly better conditions. In a letter smuggled out of his prison cell earlier this month, Greste recounted the ordeal of his Egyptian detained colleagues, saying “Fahmy has been denied the hospital treatment he badly needs for a shoulder injury he sustained shortly before our arrest. Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul-destroying tedium.”
Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah El Shamy, another defendant in the case, has meanwhile been in jail for 22 weeks. He was arrested on August 14 while covering the forced dispersal by security forces of a pro-Morsi sit-in and has been charged with inciting violence, assaulting police officers and disturbing public order. El Shamy began a hunger strike ten days ago to protest his continued detention. In a letter leaked from his cell at Torah Prison and posted on Facebook by his brother, El Shamy insisted he was innocent of all charges. He remains defiant however, saying that “nothing will break my will or dignity.” On Thursday, his detention was extended for 45 days pending further investigations . His brother Mohamed El Shamy, a photojournalist, was arrested in Cairo on Tuesday while taking photos at a pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest. He was released a few hours later.
Al Jazeera Mubashir cameraman Mohamed Badr is also behind bars. He was arrested while covering clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and security forces in July and has remained in custody since.
The case of the Al Jazeera journalists sends a chilling message to journalists that there is a high price to pay for giving the Muslim Brotherhood a voice. A journalist working for a private pro-government Arabic daily sarcastly told Index that there is only one side to the story in Egypt: the government line. Mosa’ab El Shamy, a photojournalist whose brother is one of the defendants in the Al Jazeera case posted an article this week on the website Buzzfeed, humorously titled: If you want to get arrested in Egypt, work as a journalist.
In truth though, the case is no laughing matter. National Public Radio’s Cairo Correspondent Leila Fadel said it shows just how far Egypt has backslid on the goals of the January 2011 uprising when pro-democracy protesters had demanded greater freedom of expression. Today, violations against press freedoms in Egypt are the worst in decades, according to the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists. Sadly, it does not look like the situation for journalists in Egypt will improve anytime soon.
In the meantime the fate of the Al Jazeera journalists hangs in the balance.
About Shahira Amin
Shahira Amin is a freelance Egyptian journalist who quit state run TV during the Jan 25th revolution in protest at the biased coverage of the Tahrir events.
The next issue of Index on Censorship magazine What’s the Taboo?: Why breaking down social barriers matters, explores worldwide taboos in all their guises, and why they matter. With articles from Shazia Mirza and David Baddiel, Alastair Campbell and a special section of cartoonists from around the world.