Three journalists working for Al Jazeera English are facing terror charges after being arrested at the end of December in Cairo, in what is being decried by many as an escalating suppression of the press and other critical voices in the Egyptian country.
Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based news organization, has been accused by Egypt’s military-led government of bias, wrongful intent, and working with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a political party which formed the country’s last government and was recently declared a terrorist group by Egypt’s current military- led government.
The journalists, who were detained by Egyptian authorities at their make-shift office in a Marriott Hotel room in Cairo, are English bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, Nairobi-based correspondent Peter Greste and Cairo-based producer Baher Mohamed.
They are charged with using unlicensed equipment, broadcasting false news that supports a terrorist group, and tarnishing the country’s reputation abroad.
Organizations placing international pressure on Egypt to release journalists
The arrests are attracting growing international attention as a number of organizations call for the release of the journalists, including media freedom and human rights NGOs Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship, and Article 19.
Also among them is the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organization that has monitored and advocated for journalists and media freedoms around the world since 1981.
CPJ has called on Egypt to release all imprisoned journalists in the wake of “unprecedented numbers of anti-press violations in Egypt” since the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in July of 2013.
In an open letter, the CPJ reports that since July at least five journalists have been killed, 45 journalists assaulted, and 11 news outlets raided. In addition, 44 journalists have been detained without charge in pre-trial procedures, which can often take months.
The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) held a news conference in Toronto on Thursday, February 6 with members of Al Jazeera in an effort to pressure the Canadian government to aggressively push for the release of Mohamed Fahmy, who holds dual Canadian-Egyptian citizenship.
In a Special to the Toronto Star, Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, argues that in contrast to the Australian government’s tenacious support of its citizen, Peter Greste, the Canadian government has languished in its defence of Fahmy.
Calls to release the journalists also grew after a social media campaign was launched on Tuesday, February 4, when journalists around the world began taking pictures of themselves with tape covering their mouths and posting them to Twitter with the hashtag #FreeAJstaff.
This coincided with a solidarity march by journalists and other supporters in Nairobi, where Greste was stationed, who installed themselves in front of the Egyptian Embassy.
Speaking about the three arrested journalists and media freedoms in Egypt more generally, the United Nations expressed concerns about the dangers posed to journalists working in the country.
In a statement released at the end of January, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said, “We are extremely concerned about the increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks on media in Egypt, which is hampering their ability to operate freely.”
“In recent months, there have been numerous reports of harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists as well as violent attacks, including several that led to injuries to reporters trying to cover last weekend’s third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution,” Colville told reporters in Geneva.
Intimidation and censorship at the Winter Olympics
The growing concerns about the state of the media in Egypt come at the same time that the international press is descending on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, and similar questions about media freedom and press censorship are being raised.
In a report on the freedom of information in Sochi, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) argues that local practices of intimidation have led most of the city’s media and independent journalists to censor themselves.
This has resulted in restricted news coverage of issues surrounding the preparation of the Olympic Games, such as environmental destruction, exploitation of migrant workers, and significant mismanagement of finances.
RWB also points to the dependency of local media on major subsidies from the Russian government at either the municipal or regional level, which allows state authorities to have a much greater influence in editorial content.
“Behind the glitzy façade on show in Sochi, a complete picture of Russia cannot overlook the tenacious battle being fought by the country’s independent journalists, who are exposed to growing government censorship and efforts to bring them into line,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire at the beginning of February.
In another special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in cooperation with Human Rights Watch – an international organization that has conducted extensive research and advocacy on human rights issues in Russia during the lead-up to the Winter Olympics – similar examples of state repression of the media in Sochi have come to light.
For instance, a seasoned journalist by the name of Olga Allenova, who works for a prominent business daily called Kommersant, was removed from her reporting duties after she illuminated the evictions, without compensation, of Sochi residents whose homes were destroyed to free up space for Olympic venues. The editor who published Allenova’s findings in a series of articles was also fired.
Although international journalists do not face the same pressures to which the local media has been exposed, some visiting news personnel in Sochi have faced their own challenges with Russian authorities. Most notably, a Norwegian television crew was repeatedly stopped, detained, and questioned by police while they were in the area reporting on the impact that the preparation for the Olympic Games was having on local residents.
The crew was reportedly not allowed to contact the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow during a number of its encounters with the police, although the reporters were eventually released after being told that it had all been ‘a misunderstanding’, according to Human Rights Watch.
With the Winter Olympics now underway and security measures at their peak, foreign journalists are expected to be under heavy digital surveillance throughout the duration of their stay.
Although the censorship and monitoring faced by journalists in Sochi are taking place in considerably different circumstances than the dangers faced by journalists in Egypt, one clear link between the infringements on media freedoms in both contexts is the threat of terrorism.
Whether or not the war on terror is being used as a smokescreen to conceal other motivations, and whether or not the threats posed by terrorist groups justify extreme precautions, it is clear that challenges to media freedoms and the conditions in which many journalists work today require – and in some cases are beginning to receive – increased scrutiny by both domestic and international communities.