By Lena Williams, NewsGuild-CWA :::
The Newspaper Guild-CWA, journalists, news organizations and human rights groups around the world are continuing to express outrage over Egypt’s imprisonment of three Al-Jazeera journalists.
After a sham trial on spurious terrorism-related charges, the three men were sentenced Monday to seven to 10 years in a maximum-security prison. They have already been held since December, reportedly housed together in a dank and tiny cell.
On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel fatah al-Sisi rebuffed calls from Barack Obama and other world leaders that he pardon the journalists.
“We will not interfere in judicial rulings,” Sisi said, as reported by The Guardian. “We must respect judicial rulings and not criticize them even if others do not understand this.”
“The only one failing to understand this absurdity is Egypt, which staged a farcical trial to railroad three journalists who were simply doing their jobs: reporting on the country’s civil unrest,” TNG-CWA President Bernie Lunzer said. “The president’s refusal to even consider a pardon is more evidence that Egypt has no genuine interest in justice and democracy.”
CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon also condemned Egypt’s behavior. One of the three prisoners, Mohammed Fahmy, is Al-Jazeera’s acting the Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief in Cairo.
“We cannot allow journalists to be punished or imprisoned for doing their jobs,” said Hanlon, who heads Canada’s only media union. “Democratic countries and organizations must stand up to defend freedom of the press or this sort of injustice will spread. As journalism goes, so goes democracy.”
The other imprisoned Al-Jazeera journalists are Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent who formerly worked for the BBC and Egyptian producer. Baher Mohammed, who received the 10-year sentence. A British and a Dutch journalist were sentenced in abstentia to 10 years each.
News of the convictions sent shock waves around the world as civil rights activists, political leaders and ordinary citizens joining journalists took to social media to voice their resentment, anger and bitter disappointment over the sentences using the phrase: “Journalism is not a crime” and #FreeAJStaff.
Secretary of State John Kerry raised his objections with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry making clear “our deep concerns about these convictions and sentences.”
“Today’s conviction and chilling, draconian sentences by the Cairo Criminal Court of three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 others in a trial that lacked many fundamental norms of due process, is a deeply disturbing set-back to Egypt’s transition,” Kerry said in a statement. “Injustices like these simply cannot stand.”
The three journalists were arrested in December on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist, religious, political and social organization and the first democratically elected political party in Egypt. Egyptian security forces have engaged in sweeping crackdowns on the Brotherhood calling it a terrorist group and arresting thousands. The prosecution claimed that channels like Al-Jazeera brought down Iraq and were planning to do the same in Egypt.
The three journalists and their anguished families have repeatedly denied the charges, which were so weak that the prosecution resorted to playing videos of press conferences in court. Outraged journalists and court watchers have used such terms a “mockery of justice” and “kangaroo court.”
In a world where journalists in too many countries face escalating risks of arrest, injury and death, Lunzer stressed that “letting Egypt get away with its immoral behavior would be like handing a license to tyrants around the world, effectively telling them that they can crack on journalists and journalism and the world’s democracies are powerless to stop them. We can’t let that happen.”
Lena Williams, a retired New York Times reporter and former vice president of the NY Guild, covers press freedom issues for the Guild.