Supporters of human rights and fundamental freedoms have expressed solidarity with Mohammed Adel Fahmy, Baher Mohammed and Peter Greste. All three are journalists working with Al Jazeera television channel, and were jailed last December by the Egyptian authorities on charges of siding with the Muslim Brotherhood — soon after it was designated a terrorist group — and of reporting ‘false news’. The team was covering the events in Egypt after the army’s removal of Mohammed Morsi as President. On June 15, a court in Cairo sentenced Mr. Greste, an Australian national formerly with the BBC, and Mr. Fahmy, the channel’s Cairo bureau chief who was formerly with CNN, to seven years’ imprisonment; Mr. Baher Mohammed got an additional three years for being in possession of “ammunition” — he had on him a spent bullet casing. Three other journalists were given 10-year sentences in absentia. Another journalist from Al Jazeera Arabic, Abdullah Elshamy, who had been jailed in August 2013, and was on a hunger strike for over three months, was removed to an undisclosed location in May after a medical examination. The evidence produced by the prosecution against the journalists included footage of interviews done by the channel with Egyptian politicians across the spectrum, hardly corroborating the charge of their bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood; more remarkably, it included irrelevant footage from other channels. Lawyers defending the journalists had no access to the entire collection of video clips, some of which the prosecution showed to the judge alone.
The court’s verdict is an egregious blow against media freedom, and clearly a move to intimidate journalists covering the turmoil in Egypt. Days before the May 26-28 election which he won, President Abdel Fatah el Sisi, the country’s former army chief, said stability was more important than freedom, arguing that the protests that had engulfed the country since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak had badly affected the economy. Tellingly, he said Egypt needed another “20 to 25 years to achieve true democracy.” As appeals for the release of the journalists continue to pour in from across the world, President el Sisi has said he will not interfere with the judicial process, while maintaining that the journalists have been given a fair trial. The United States has called for the “chilling draconian sentences” to be reversed, but with Secretary of State John Kerry praising the Egyptian strongman, and promising to keep military aid flowing just a day before the verdict, it is doubtful if the U.S. is serious in the defence of democracy. All those committed to basic freedoms need to ensure that the pressure on Egypt is kept up. Jailing even one journalist on trumped up charges is an attack on media freedom everywhere.