Accused of producing "false news" in the country, 20 Al Jazeera staff members have been detained in Egypt. What's driving the crackdown? What will defenders of free press do now?
CAIRO – In Egypt, journalism can now be a form of terrorism. At least that's what prosecutors are alleging in a case targeting Al Jazeera, with 20 defendants referred to trial on charges of joining or aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security.
Among the principal accusations, the prosecutor's statement accuses the defendants of manipulating video footage “to produce unreal scenes to suggest abroad that the country is undergoing a civil war that portends the downfall of the state."
The statement goes on to say prosecutors assigned a team of "media experts" from the Egyptian Union for Television and Radio to inspect equipment seized from the hotel where Al Jazeera English was operating. The technical reports show that "the footage was altered and video scenes were modified using software and high-caliber editing equipment."
So they used Final Cut Pro. They edited. They probably even selected the fiercest footage of clashes for their reports. The nature of the charges would be comical if they weren't so serious.
“Egypt has become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist.”
The journalists accused in the case are being treated as terrorists – that is to say, inhumanely. Two of the detained Al Jazeera English staff, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, are being held in Al-Akrab, the maximum security wing of Tora prison, alongside jihadis and militants. They have been kept in solitary confinement 24-hours a day in insect-infested cells with no beds, books or sunlight for over four weeks. Following the series of bombings in Cairo on January 24, guards even took away their blankets and food their relatives had provided. After a recent visit with him, Fahmy's family said his spirit appeared to have been broken. Peter Greste is being held in only slightly better conditions.
Meanwhile, two other Al Jazeera journalists, Abdallah al-Shami and Mohamed Badr, have been imprisoned for over five months, their lives irrevocably damaged for having reported from the site of clashes and swept up in the mass arrests of protesters. Shami has been on a hunger strike since January 21 to protest his detention.
Egypt has become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a journalist. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked it the third deadliest country for journalists in 2013 and among the world's top ten worst jailers of journalists. Aside from being killed, wounded, or arrested by security forces, reporters in Egypt are increasingly being attacked by civilians.
Not just police and military
An Italian journalist friend who was in Egypt for a few days last month to cover the referendum and revolution anniversary was savagely beaten on the street. He was sitting on the curb, down the road from the bombed police headquarters in Abdeen, filing a story, when a man approached him and began screaming that he was a member of Al Jazeera. He was quickly surrounded by an angry mob that set upon him with fists and sticks for 10 minutes before the police decided to intervene. His shirt was torn off, his nose was broken and his body covered in bruises. He described to me in disbelief how, even after the worst violence had subsided, a woman in her 60s continued to try and dig her nails into his back, clawing at him in an uncontrollable fit of rage.
The incident is just one among many and is the direct result of a state-sponsored vilification campaign against journalists in general, and Al Jazeera in particular.
You may not like Al Jazeera or other media outlets. You may not agree with their coverage, but rights and principles matter most when they are inconvenient. Press freedom should extend to all press. No serious observer could argue that state and private media in Egypt don't have an agenda. They have parroted the state narrative uncontested, cited outlandish rumors as fact, broadcast surveillance tapes of activists, and have fallen over one another to demonize anyone who doesn't toe the official line.
The whole point of journalism is to hold those in power accountable, to give a platform to the most marginalized voices, not to act as a megaphone for authority.
Where interviews constitute crime
Now, government officials say they cannot be certain whether merely publishing an interview with a Brotherhood representative may be considered a crime. In attempt to clarify its position, the State Information Service sent an email to the foreign press corps. "The SIS also notifies that Egyptian law does not criminalize mere contact or foreknowledge of any accused criminal or a person imprisoned in a pending case, as this is not considered a punishable offense to be penalized for, except if this contact is a sort of assisting or inciting or as a result of a prior agreement," the statement said. Even if you can figure out what it means, it doesn't sound very reassuring.
Meanwhile, a draft of an anti-terrorism bill sent from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry on Thursday includes new articles that allow the state to monitor Facebook and Internet pages to "prevent using them for acts of terror.” Article 21 of the bill is astonishing in its vagueness and scope: "Anyone who directly or indirectly promotes acts of terror, either verbally or in writing, or through any other means of broadcasting or publishing, or through letters or online websites that others can access, shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years."
The much-hailed new constitution guarantees freedom of thought and opinion, yet those with dissenting thoughts and opinions are targeted. Freedom of the press is guaranteed, yet journalists are behind bars. Why even refer to rights and legislation when those enforcing the law are its most egregious violators?
Wars on terror are nothing new. Much of the press corps in Egypt cut their teeth covering the war on terror launched by the United States after 9/11 that primarily targeted the Middle East. That war was used to justify the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, torture, assassinations, drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, and surveillance on an unprecedented scale.
Egypt's war on terror is primarily being used to re-empower the security state and silence opposition voices. Of course the targeting of journalists is a mere drop in the tidal wave of repression underway right now. The sheer number of people being imprisoned every week is astonishing. No one is safe: journalists, activists, scholars, protesters, children, even bystanders on the street. This cannot be the society we aspire to.