By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: Egyptian officials apparently couldn’t have cared less that the outside world was watching and waiting to see how the nation’s courts would rule in the retrial of three journalists sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison in December 2013.
Last Friday, an Egyptian judge gave the journalists from the Al Jazeera English news channel three years in prison on the same trumped-up charges.
The prosecution claimed the journalists “aided” a terrorist organization, were part of a terrorist cell, weren’t journalists because they lacked the necessary credentials, were “plotting” with the Muslim Brotherhood to produce false news that was “damaging to national security” and were “in a plot with Satan.”
The trial of Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste attracted world-wide attention and support from media groups, journalists, human rights advocates, legal experts and foreign leaders. Calling the case unjust, unfounded and politically motivated, they accused Egypt of violating press freedom and persecuting journalists.
Even Egypt’s own president, Abdel Fattah el Sisi, said he would have deported the journalists rather than try them, but he refused to interfere with any judicial rulings.
The defendants have fiercely denied the charges and called the case against them a “sham.”
How else to describe a case built on fabricated videos allegedly confiscated from the Al Jazeera network? Most of the videos presented as evidence against the defendants were filmed three years before one of the three men, Fahmy, worked for Al Jazeera.
Greste, an Australian citizen, was deported last February after spending more than 400 days in prison. Two weeks later, Mohamed and Fahmy were released pending the retrial.
Canadian-Egyptian Fahmy and Egyptian Mohamed are back in custody. Greste, who was tried in absentia, remains in Australia.
If Egypt issues an international arrest warrant for Greste, his career as a foreign correspondent will be over, CNN reported. That’s because he won’t be able to travel to any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt.
“That is a minor inconvenience compared with what my colleagues are having to go through,” Greste told CNN. In a tweet, he said “shocked, outraged, angry, upset,” don’t begin to convey how he feels about the verdict.
The verdict was especially shocking because media reports suggested that Egyptian officials viewed the trial as a nuisance that brought unwelcome scrutiny of their government.
The conventional wisdom was that the journalists would be exonerated or sentenced to time served.
Among stunned and angry reactions was this, from U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby: “We urge the government of Egypt to take all available measures to redress this verdict which undermines the very freedom of expression necessary for stability and development. The freedom of the press to investigate, report and comment – even when its perspective is unpopular or disputed – is fundamental to any free society and essential to democratic development.”
A spokesman for Prince Zeid bin Raad, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said: “We are very disturbed by these three sentences and the extra pressure it creates on journalists in Egypt who are just trying to do their jobs.”
Fahmy’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, asked President al-Sisi to issue a pardon to the journalists.
“The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt,” Clooney told reporters. “It sends a message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their jobs, for telling the truth and reporting the news.”
But Egypt’s courts answer to no one, including the president, and Egyptian officials are defiantly refusing to back down.
A spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry tweeted on Sunday that the ministry rejects any foreign criticism of the legal system, calling it “an unacceptable intrusion” in the country’s judiciary, as reported by Al Jazeera.
He went on to say the verdicts were “unrelated to freedom of the press but rather to specific documented legal violations.”
Even though Greste will not be extradited from Australia to serve his sentence and Fahmy may be deported to Canada, the case is a grave injustice and a threat to all journalists trying to report on Egypt.
If no relief comes via pardons or appeals, the third journalist, Mohamed, will spend nearly 1,100 days behind bars, plus an additional six months on a charge of possessing a spent bullet casing.
Egypt’s government is using the nation’s judicial system as a lethal weapon to silence critics and crack down on those opposed to the new regime.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt was the third deadliest country for the media in 2013 and has arrested, tried and imprisoned an “unprecedented” number of journalists working for international media outlets. CPJ reports that at least 18 journalists are currently in prison in Egypt, the highest number since the organization began keeping records in 1990.
Despite growing pressure from the outside world to curb government abuse, most of Egypt’s citizens support the government. But when the state largely controls the news media, that’s not altogether surprising.
Such an abuse of power is especially reprehensible in one of the oldest civilizations on earth, a nation whose culture was famous for great cultural advances to arts, science, technology and religion and influenced many other ancient civilizations.