Journalists in Egypt suffer from some of the world’s most oppressive laws and restrictions on truthful and independent reporting. And the weekend’s court verdict and jail sentences in the much-publicised re-trial of Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and (in absentia) Peter Greste (pictured left to right above), on charges of aiding a terrorist organisation and spreading false news, have dashed hopes for a relaxation of President al-Sisi’s vice-like grip on the information sphere.
The international outcry against the sentences has been exceptional and the shock is felt much further afield. Since 2012, when the United Nations launched its Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, international human rights organisations, with the backing of supportive governments, have put unprecedented efforts into establishing legal and practical protections for journalists and other civil society groups, as a basis for building democratic societies and making governments more accountable. Recent events in Egypt are a setback in that struggle.
Amal Clooney, the high-profile lawyer for Mohamed Fahmy, said the verdict sent a message that “journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news”. She added that “there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda”.
She said she would request President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to pardon and release the journalists. Hopes live on that the president may decide to do so, as he has hinted that he might intervene after the court hearings were over.
Peter Greste, an Australian national, was freed in February under a newly enacted law allowing for the deportation of foreign nationals. And Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-born Canadian, testified in court that security officials had persuaded him to renounce his Egyptian citizenshipon the understanding that he would eventually be freed to go to Canada.
Expectations of Fahmy’s release – and that of his colleague Baher Mohamed – have been high since the start of this year, when the guilty verdict reached in June 2014 in the first trial of the three men was overturned on appeal.
But instead both Fahmy and Mohamed, who had been freed during the course of their re-trial this year, are now back in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, sentenced to three years and three and-a-half years respectively.
Wider international concerns centre on what the trial showed of the arbitrariness of Egyptian justice, the lack of judicial independence, and the country’s harsh laws that can literally make independent journalism a crime. Those things have had a severe, chilling effect on journalists and Egyptian society as a whole.
During the first trial of the three al-Jazeera English journalists, the prosecution opened itself to ridicule by failing to produce meaningful evidence relevant to the charges. Later a court-appointed technical panel directly refuted evidence put forward by the public prosecutor and stated that videos seized from the journalists were not fabricated.
The Court of Cassation, which annulled the original guilty verdict, criticised the conduct of the earlier trial as well as the failure to investigate claims that the defendants had made statements under duress. And yet the re-trial again found the defendants guilty.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that, in the course of what the authorities call a ‘war on terrorism’ following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, the Egyptian government banned the Brotherhood and then indiscriminately charged journalists and political detainees with belonging to an illegal group.
CPJ reports that as of 12 August 2015 at least 22 journalists were in jail in Egypt, most of them accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and other charges. One of them is Mahmoud Abou Zeid – also known as Shawkan – a freelance photographer arrested while covering the violent dispersal by security forces of the Raba’a Al-Adawiya protest in Cairo in August 2013 which left hundreds of people dead. (The image above is part of an international campaign to get Shawkan released.)
Shawkan’s lawyers say the charges against him, including membership of the Muslim Brotherhood and attempted murder, are bogus and amount to a “staggering injustice”. They say, too, that he has been beaten in jail, and his two years of pre-trial detention exceeds the legal limit so he should be released at once.
CPJ has also criticised a new Egyptian anti-terrorism law that came into effect in mid-August, saying that its overly broad definition of terrorism is used to threaten and imprison journalists.
The law defines terrorist crimes as “any act aiming to harm public order, social peace or national unity”. It provides for a minimum of five years in prison for “promoting any terrorist crimes verbally, in writing or by any other means”. It imposes fines of up to $64,000 for publishing “false statements” about terrorism, including media reports that contradict accounts given out by the country’s Ministry of Defence.
CPJ says a consequence of the crackdown on press freedom and other civil rights by the al-Sisi government, which still rules by decree, is that entire regions of Egypt are severely under-reported. In Sinai, for example, reporters are barred from reporting on the violent conflict between militant groups and Egyptian forces.
Mohamed Fahmy, the former Cairo bureau chief of al-Jazeera English, is suing his own employers, accusing them of putting him and his colleagues in danger by failing to ensure their official accreditation as journalists in Egypt and by waging a “media war” against Egypt via al-Jazeera’s sister Arabic channel.
The broadcaster defends its actions, saying that al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language channels are the most watched and the most credible in the Arab world, and that the accreditation of journalists should be an administrative matter, not a criminal one.
“All news organisations take risks when deploying to hostile environments,” al-Jazeera says on its website. “These are risks that all reporters face, particularly in the Middle East.”
Editorial decisions about journalists’ safety and coverage on dangerous assignments have become increasingly troubling issues for media companies and for individual journalists, as the environment for media workers has grown harsher and more unpredictable in the Middle East and other regions of the world.
The al-Jazeera trial has made sure that press freedom, the rule of law and the right to protest are live issues in Egypt’s diplomatic relations with other countries – including the UK, which President al-Sisi is due to visit later this year.
Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations such as the International News Safety Institute are intensifying efforts to monitor attacks on the press and to reduce the alarming death toll among journalists worldwide.
And on 2 November this year the United Nations, with support from many sides, will renew international efforts to create a safe environment for journalists when it marks International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, which was declared as part of a Resolution on Safety of Journalists adopted unanimously in 2013 at the UN General Assembly.