Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Camera crime

The trial of 20 journalists working for Al-Jazeera satellite channel draws condemnation from human rights organisations. Mohamed Abdel-Baky reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 29 January Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat referred 20 journalists working for Al-Jazeera satellite channel to trial. The defendants include four foreigners. The date ‎of the trial has not yet been set.‎

Peter Greste, an award winning Australian reporter, and Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-‎Egyptian, are among those ‎arrested in December. One ‎Dutch and two British nationals have also been charged.‎

The general prosecutor’s office accuses the 16 Egyptian defendants of being members of a terrorist group. The four foreigners are accused of promoting false news that serves the aims of the terrorist group. All face charges of running an unlicensed media centre from two hotel rooms.

The prosecution claims the defendants “manipulated pictures” to ‎create “unreal scenes to give the impression that there ‎is a civil war threatening to bring down the state”. They are also accused of broadcasting scenes that would help the Muslim Brotherhood “in achieving its goals and ‎influencing the public opinion”.‎

Security officials claim Fahmy, the acting bureau chief, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that he led the media operation that “fabricated footage” and aired it on Al-Jazeera and CNN with the “aim of harming Egypt’s international reputation”. Equipment used to “fabricate” the footage was confiscated from the hotel where they operated. Handwritten notes headed “students on strike during exams,” ‘‘the most important trials of December” and “the road map has become worthless” were also seized say security officers.

The charges are based on the government’s decision last month to designate the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

In August, following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi security forces raided offices of Al-Jazeera’s sister channel Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr in Agouza, Dokki and Imbaba seizing two vehicles and a number of cameras, microphones and broadcasting equipment. Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr journalist Abdullah Al-Shamy has been imprisoned without charge since the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in. Al-Shamy began a hunger strike on 27 January.

Rights groups say the decision to try journalists on terror-related charges ‎is political and targets press freedom.

“It is part of an ongoing campaign attacking press freedom,” says Gamal Eid, director of the ‎Cairo-based Arabic Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI). “To ‎work for Al-Jazeera or any other news organisation is not a crime.”‎

Journalists, he added, should be allowed to report freely on events in Egypt. Arresting them has nothing to do with protecting national security.  

The decision to refer the journalists to trial has drawn international criticism. Last Wednesday the US called on the government to reconsider the decision.

“The Egyptian government’s targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a sharply worded statement.

“We remind the government publicly and privately that freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy and we urge the interim government to implement its commitment to this freedom.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders are among several international groups that have called on the European Union and US to press the government to drop the charges against the journalists and release them.

“The deliberate chilling of media freedom through arrests and criminalization of legitimate journalism has all the hallmarks of the authoritarian Egypt of the Mubarak era,” they said in a joint statement.

“This attempt to criminalise legitimate journalistic work is what distorts Egypt’s image abroad. The government’s lack of tolerance shows that it is unable to handle criticism,” says Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator. “We call on authorities to drop these charges and release all journalists from jail immediately.

In a related development on Sunday Mohamed Badr, a cameraman working for Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, was acquitted by Northern Giza Criminal Court along with 61 other defendants held since July after being accused of violent rioting in Ramses Street. All were found not guilty.

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