CAIRO — In February 2014, Egyptian police raided Cairo’s five-star Marriott, where 20 journalists had set up a media center to report local news.
Authorities knocked on the door of one of the hotel’s suites. They inspected the room and ultimately arrested the confused guests: the Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy who was working as Al Jazeera English’s acting bureau chief, Peter Greste, the lauded Australian journalist of the same network and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed.
They were accused of fabricating “unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state” and helping the overthrown Muslim Brotherhood in “achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion.”
On June 23, after several hearings, the Egyptian judiciary came to a decision and convicted the three men, who were being detained in prison, of the accused charges. Fahmy and Greste were sentenced to seven years in jail, and Mohamed received a sentence of 10 years.
During the trial, prosecutors claimed that the Al Jazeera reporters doctored footage to mar Egypt’s reputation. They showed in court three videos retrieved from the defendants, but none appeared to corroborate the Egyptian government’s charges. In fact, all of the footage was shot by other networks and described nothing pertaining to Egyptian politics.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ,) Egypt now joins Syria and Iraq among the worst countries for journalists.
Especially so for Al Jazeera staff.
On July 3, 2013, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by his own generals in a military coup. Now, the country is led by Morsi’s former defense minister, General Sisi.
The new regime was first met with widespread support by media — with the exception of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood network owned by the gulf state of Qatar. The rich nation, in a gamble encouraged by realpolitik, funded Morsi and the movement that was ousted just last year.
Now, the move appears to have backfired, as many analysts believe the unsubstantiated sentencing of the reporters was politically motivated. In other words, the new regime, bent on eradicating dissenting views, wants to take any jabs it can at Qatar.
It seems that Al Jazeera’s Arabic arm, however, has been confused with Al Jazeera English, a different channel whose reporters were arrested. Al Jazeera English is not managed by the same team that manages the Arabic Al Jazeera channel whose coverage in Egypt has been seen as unfavorable and overly sympathetic toward the Muslim Brotherhood.
Three other foreign journalists — also part of the so-called “Marriott cell” — were tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
The only recourse that Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed have in gaining freedom is the ability to appeal the decision through the same suspect legal system.
But diplomats have been rushing to express their concern and resolve the situation.
Ralph King, Australian ambassador in Cairo, said, “We will make our feelings clear to the Egyptian government and we will continue to provide all possible.”
The White House has also condemned the sentencing and has asked the Egyptian government to pardon the journalists of their alleged crimes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the convictions “chilling and draconian.”
But despite pleas from U.S. President Barack Obama and others for clemency, President Sisi still refuses, saying, “We must respect judicial rulings and not criticize them even if others do not understand this.”
Such diplomatic indifference from Egypt comes in the face of Kerry’s recent meeting with Sisi, during which they discussed the U.S.’s plan to unfreeze the majority of a $650 million Egyptian aid package.
– Shehrose Mian
Sources: CNN 1, CNN 2, Amnesty International, The Guardian 1, The Guardian 2, The Guardian 3, The Guardian 4, The Guardian 5, The Guardian 6, The Guardian 7, The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, Al Jazeera