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Truthdiggers of the Week: Al-Jazeera Journalists in Cairo Jail

Alexander Reed Kelly
Associate Editor
In December 2010, Alex was arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House alongside Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, healthcare activist Margaret Flowers and…
Alexander Reed Kelly

It’s a scene out of a journalist’s nightmare. You wake up one day in a cage, your civilian’s clothes swapped for prison garb. A few feet away men and women argue over how long you should be put away for the crime of doing your job. That’s where three Al-Jazeera journalists — Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed — found themselves Thursday during a trial in which the prosecutor claimed that, as The New York Times reports, “they had facilitated terrorism and sought the downfall of the Egyptian state by reporting” on developments in the country’s political situation before their arrest last year.

Greste, an Australian correspondent, Fahmy, an Egyptian producer, and Mohamed, also an Egyptian, are at the center of the international media’s limited focus on the trial. The charges against them are bizarre. Along with 17 others they are accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood — a group that was blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Egypt’s military government after Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, was ousted from office last year — and undermining the country’s reputation abroad. The Guardian reports that the journalists are charged with “spreading false news” and collaborating and assisting other defendants by providing, editing and publishing media material on the Internet.

According to The Guardian:

In the trial’s 11th session [on Thursday], the prosecution finally closed its case, claiming that the three journalists had collected material from the Muslim Brotherhood and edited it to imply that Egypt was engaged in a civil war. The lead prosecutor, Mohamed Barakat, said al-Jazeera’s reports on sexual assaults and street protests were among those aimed at smearing Egypt’s reputation in the outside world.

… The prosecution did not specify which raw footage or news packages had been doctored. In previous sessions, its evidence has included footage of horses taken from Sky News Arabia, a BBC documentary about Somalia and a press conference from Kenya. It also included dozens of raw videos of al-Jazeera interviews with figures from all sides of Egypt’s spectrum — including the Muslim Brotherhood. …

In his defense Thursday, Fahmy’s lawyer, Khaled Abou Bakr, said that it was a reporter’s job to interview activists of all political orientations, and to prosecute Fahmy and his colleagues for doing so was to put journalism itself on trial. “This is not a trial of these defendants alone — this is a trial of all journalists,” Abou Bakr said.

Eleven of the defendants are being tried in absentia, including three reporters who are abroad. The potential sentence lengths vary but are capped at 25 years. The trial is described as part of an ongoing attempt to secure power for former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Sisi won last week’s presidential election with 96.1 percent of the vote and has been the de facto ruler since Morsi was overthrown.

Reports from inside the courtroom appeared in real time via Twitter. “Everything about this trial is a sham,” Fahmy told reporters who tweeted the group’s statements. “This is a vendetta against al-Jazeera. We are hostages in a battle between Qatar & Egypt.” And “If we’re in jail because we called it a coup, why isn’t CNN, BBC in the cage? Why isn’t every journalist in the cage?”

Greste added, “Where are the facts we got wrong, where is the footage we manipulated? They speak only in generalisations!” Fahmy also described himself and his fellow captives as “hostages” in a political battle between Egypt and Qatar. The government of Qatar owns Al-Jazeera and has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. Fahmy says the trial is about “democracy and a free press” and that the military officials currently in power “don’t believe in a free press.”

The prosecution has used hyperbolic language, describing the relationship between Al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood as an “alliance of devils” and claiming that any mercy shown to the defendants in the form of anything less than a maximum sentence “leads to the drowning of an entire society in darkness.” Observers have suggested that the behavior of the prosecution and the judicial system is doing more to harm the country’s image than anything the journalists reported, including speeches made against the president and the sexual harassment of female demonstrators. 

Somewhat disturbingly, the journalists’ lawyers seemed at times to bend to the corrupted logic of the prosecutor. Filming someone who is shouting “down with the president” doesn’t mean a journalist holds that person’s view, Fahmy’s lawyer said — the implication being that harboring feelings against the president would be deserving of punishment.

One wonders where is the outrage from leaders around the world and from major Western editors, publishers and broadcasters. Al-Jazeera has demanded the release of its employees, but would-be human rights champions President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton so far appear to be silent. The White House gave an indication last week that the president would speak with Sisi in the days that followed. Still, Egypt remains in thrall to Saudi Arabia, a repressive theocracy supported by the United States. It is through these relationships that the Obama administration tacitly supports the corruption of democracy and the suppression of the press in Egypt and other Arab countries, which become the U.S.’ dependent and willing client states.

The journalists have been detained for over 160 days. Fahmy’s condition has worsened as he was forced to sleep on a floor for a month with a fractured shouler. A fourth Al-Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, who has been detained under separate charges since August, “is suffering from acute anaemia, the onset of kidney dysfunction, low blood pressure and hypoglycaemia, and his weight has dropped” drastically, Al-Jazeera reports. Without state intervention, their futures look grim. Their trial will resume June 16, when the defense lawyers are expected to offer their concluding statements. For suffering outrageous abuses by the Egyptian state for doing their jobs, we honor Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed as our Truthdiggers of the Week.

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