Last week, three journalists working for the Qatar owned news channel Al Jazeera were sentenced in Egypt for aiding terrorism and spreading falsified news.
Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy were given a seven-year sentence while Maher Mohamed was given ten years. All three men are experienced journalists. Peter Greste, an Australian is an ex-BBC correspondent and Fahmy, a Canadian Egyptian, an ex-CNN employee. Men who know the legal ways to source information: or so they thought.
According to the Egyptian court, these journalists, amongst other activists, endangered Egyptian national security by ‘siding’ with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, ex-president, Mohamed Morsi. Al Jazeera is believed by many in Egypt to be sympathetic to Morsi and the Brotherhood. Anyone seen, therefore, to be working for Al Jazeera become guilty by association.
…guilty by association…
As argued by the defence, Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were merely exercising their democratic rights and gathering information. In other words, they were doing their job. In court, Fahmy aptly stated his profession includes having contacts in all areas: whether they are from the army, the police or the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the trial – which began in February – the prosecution used some bizarre ‘evidence’ consisting of footage and events completely unrelated to Egyptian politics and/or Al Jazeera. The prosecution has further been internationally criticised and weakened for basic procedural errors and the retraction of three key witnesses. However, this did not seem to trouble the jury who found all three guilty.
…merely exercising their democratic rights and gathering information…
The verdict has sparked international condemnation. David Cameron has said it is ‘completely appalling’ and US Secretary of State, John Kerry, a ‘chilling and draconian’ outcome. Just twenty-four hours after the sentencing, hundreds of journalists in London gathered to carry out a one-minute silence holding paper displaying the message ‘#journalismisnotacrime.’ Thousands internationally joined in via social media, adopting this hashtag and expressing outrage.
Unfortunately, the domestic response to the trial has been mixed in comparison to the anger abroad. Despite a plea from Barack Obama to President el-Sisi to release the journalists and all other political prisoners, el-Sisi has stated he will not ‘interfere’ with judiciary.
This trial, in its entirety, is troubling. Egypt is a new democracy. After the political uprisings against Mubarak in February 2011, for the first time Egypt democratically elected a head of state, Mohamed Morsi. Only a year later, the current president el-Sisi, who has vowed to ‘wipe-out’ the Brotherhood, overthrew Morsi.
Is this trial and sentencing a warning to all journalists? Is Egypt’s new regime anti-democratic? Does this make news journalism a crime in Egypt? Or rather, those who report anything against the state criminals? In a country that demonstrated the power of its people and expression during the protests of 2011, it seems sad how that such freedom of expression be squashed so easily. Egypt is violating the most basic standards of media freedom.
…Does this make news journalism a crime in Egypt?…
El-Sisi’s ruling out of a pardon means the only legal remaining option for the convicted journalists is an appeal. This appeal is unlikely to start until at least October. If Egypt wants to succeed as a true democratic state, then it must acknowledge that the imprisonment of these men only hinders its progress.