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Egypt’s Al Jazeera verdict: the death of the free press

The three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven years in jail in an Egyptian court room today should never have been tried in the first place. And yet, the day before their verdict, the US government released £338m of military aid to Egypt's repressive new rulers. 

Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues stand inside a cage during their trial. Photo: Getty.
Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues stand inside a cage during their trial. Photo: Getty.

Let’s start with the basics. The three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to seven years in jail in an Egyptian court room today should never have been tried in the first place. There was no case against them. The Australian correspondent Peter Greste, the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohmmed Fahmy and their Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed were all charged with “terrorism-related offences”, including destabilising the country and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s former ruling party, which was branded a terrorist organisation in December 2013.

In another context, their trial could have been a black comedy, so ridiculous was the “evidence” presented against them. Their satellite phone – standard equipment for jobbing journalists reporting on a revolution in a country where the phone lines are constantly cut – was paraded in front of a crowded court room as high-tech spy equipment. The videos screened as evidence of their covert support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood included a Sky News documentary on horse welfare, a BBC documentary about Somalia and a song by the Australian singer Gotye. Local media toed the government line by referring to the journalists as the “Marriot cell” after the hotel where the journalists were staying.

The only “crime” Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed can be accused of is a commitment to journalism in a country keen to suppress inconvenient truths. Since Egypt’s July 2013 revolution – which saw the replacement of Egypt’s only democratically elected but deeply unpopular president Mohammed Morsi with a military-backed government – the security forces have conducted a campaign of brutal repression. Last summer, hundreds of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed and thousands injured when security forces opened fire on protests. Since then, hundreds more have been sentenced to death, and even secular critics of Egypt’s new government face jail.

These Al Jazeera journalists reported on the bloodshed and interviewed Muslim Brotherhood members. No journalist with an interest in reporting the truth could have neglected to do so. But they faced two problems. First, from its first days in power, Egypt’s new government has sought to muzzle the media. Second, Al Jazeera is financed by Qatar – one of the biggest funders and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. This means the news channel – once seen as a champion of the Arab Spring because of its coverage of government atrocities and popular protests – is now loathed, by both the Egyptian government and large chunks of the public.

There is no doubt that today’s verdict is not only a personal tragedy for these journalists, but a dark day for Egypt’s revolution. It is symbolic of the Egyptian state’s disregard for freedom of press, freedom of speech and individual rights. The verdict comes just a day after 182 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death in a mass trial. It is tragic to remember that in 2011 hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in defence of their freedom and to demand the overthrow of their dictator, Hosni Mubarak. This isn’t just a return to the Mubarak era – it’s much worse.

I had hoped that the international attention on the Al Jazeera trial would have put pressure on the government and judiciary to back down – but no such luck. This farcical kangaroo trial is an international embarrassment for Egypt's new rulers, but when America will still help prop them up, they don't really care. The US announced yesterday that it was unlocking the £338m of military aid to Egypt that had been frozen since Morsi’s ouster.  The US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo for “candid” talks with the country’s new president, the former army chief, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, on human rights. Evidently, however, human rights were not a high enough priority for Kerry to risk America’s relationship with Egypt and withhold aid.

Greste, Mohammed and Fahmy have already spent 177 days in jail, where they have been locked up for 23 hours a day, and been denied access to newspapers and television, or any opportunity to prepare their defence. Fahmy had been refused medical treatment for a dislocated shoulder. Other defendants in the trial said they had been beaten in custody. Last week, Greste’s brother told the Guardian that Peter found his suffering “easier to handle mentally if it’s for a cause”.

The freedom of the press was on trial in Egypt today, and it lost. 

Tags:Egypt