Factbox: Egypt’s Crackdown on Journalists

With authorities bringing charges against twenty journalists, among them four foreigners and sixteen Egyptians, the focus has shifted onto the journalists who have been reporting on Egypt’s post-Morsi travails. The story, now known in Egyptian press as the “Marriott Cell” because the journalists were working out of the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, has garnered significant international attention, prompting several international governments and organizations to express concern over the status of freedom of speech in Egypt.
Journalist Arrests

According to a translation by the New York Times of the charges brought against the journalists, the prosecutor ordered “the indictment of twenty defendants, including four foreigners (one Australian, two Britons and a Dutch woman), from among the correspondents of the Qatari Al-Jazeera media network.”

The charge sheet goes on to say:

Currently, three Al-Jazeera English journalists, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian, Baher Mohamed, are known to be in custody, while Dutch journalist, Rena Netjes fled the country on Tuesday when it became apparent that her name was on the list of twenty journalists, despite not working for Al-Jazeera. In fact, of the journalists accused by Egyptian authorities, only nine work for Al-Jazeera. The two Britons on the list are Al-Jazeera reporters Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, while the other Egyptians on the list are producers and engineers who work in Qatar.

In a separate case, however, Abdallah al-Shamy, another Al-Jazeera journalist, who has been detained since the August 14 dispersal of the pro-Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in, remains detained without charges. Shamy, who has been on hunger strike for over two weeks, wrote in his second letter from prison:

Shamy’s case, however, received little international media attention until Fahmy and Greste’s arrest.

Additionally, Egyptian filmmaker Hossam al-Menaie and his American roommate, journalist and translator, Jeremy Hodge, were detained incommunicado for several days. Hodge and Menaie both face similar charges as the Al-Jazeera journalists: spreading false news and endangering the stability of the nation. Hodge was released 36 hours later, and has since returned to the United States. 

2/10/2013 Update: Menaie was released from police custody after being held for eighteen days. While he was released without bail, he is still facing the charges brought against him. While in custody, he reportedly faced physical and psychological torture

Online Campaign

A leaked video, aired on private Egyptian satellite channel Tahrir, complete with a sinister-sounding soundtrack borrowed from Hollywood movie, Thor: The Dark World, shows Fahmy and Greste’s arrest and interrogation, while the camera pans around the room, filming computers, wires, copies of Fahmy’s latest book Egyptian Freedom Story, and more. 

The release of the video caused a stir, and the arrests, and video itself, have garnered stiff criticism both domestically and abroad.

This was soon followed by an online campaign calling for the release of the journalists. Journalists staged a protest in Kenya outside the Egyptian embassy, calling for the release of their colleagues, while an online a movement swept the Internet. Starting out with journalists, many others quickly joined in, posting photos of themselves with tape over their mouths, holding up pieces of paper bearing the hashtag for the movement: #FreeAJStaff

Greste has written two letters from prison. In the second he says, “Journalists are never supposed to become the story.” Nonetheless, that is what has happened. This has led to some lamenting the fact that the focus has shifted from thousands of Egyptians still in jail. The three journalists have been moved to a lower security section of Tora Prison, Molha’a al-Mazra’a, usually reserved for high profile detainees. Ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, for example, have been held there. 

Nonetheless, it would appear that the pressure has had an impact, as Fahmy’s family, tweeting from his account, shared some improvements in his treatment, along with Baher and Greste.

In another bright spot in a bleak picture, Mohamed Badr, an Al-Jazeera photojournalist who was arrested in mid-July, was acquitted on February 2, of charges of thuggery, inciting murder, possessing unlicensed weapons, vandalizing public facilities, blocking roads and using violence against security forces.

The crackdown has had a chilling effect on journalists working in Egypt, many fearing the consequences of reporting from the country.

International Pressure
As international attention turns to the detained journalists, several governments and organizations have spoken out about their concerns over media freedom in Egypt.

The US State Department slammed the charges brought against the journalists, with Spokesperson Jen Psaki saying “”The 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.” Egypt’s foreign ministry did not take kindly to the statement, rejecting US comments as “unacceptable” interference. Badr Abdel Aaty, spokesperson for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said that Egyptian judicial system was completely autonomous and worked independently of the Egyptian government.

The White House was equally critical in its response to the allegations, with Spokesperson Jay Carney saying, “The restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt are a concern, and that includes the targeting of Egyptian and foreign journalists and academics simply for expressing their views. These figures, regardless of affiliation, should be protected and permitted to do their jobs freely in Egypt.”

The European Union similarly issued a statement of concern, saying, “We are extremely concerned by the unacceptable detention of political dissidents and journalists. Freedom of expression, assembly and peaceful protest must be safeguarded. The EU calls on the authorities to ensure the defendants’ rights to a fair and timely trial based on clear charges and proper and independent investigations, as well as the right of access and contact to lawyers and family members.”

In a statement on Thursday about the current state of affairs in Egypt, members of the European Parliament called for “an immediate end to all acts of violence, harassment or intimidation against political opponents, journalists, trade unions and civil society representatives. The interim government must guarantee that these actors, both domestic and international, can operate freely in the country. The statement made no direct reference to the Al-Jazeera journalists.

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a statement in which he said he was “concerned by restrictions on freedom of the press in Egypt.” The statement added “We have raised our concerns about these cases and freedom of expression at a senior level with the Egyptian government in recent days. I will discuss these concerns with other European Foreign Ministers at the European Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, and we will continue to monitor the situation of the journalists very closely, and raise them with the Egyptian authorities.”

Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, In a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy, expressed his concern over the charges. “It is important for our bilateral relations but also for the political process in North Africa that Egypt succeeds in the transition to a consolidated democracy,” Steinmeier said at a joint press conference in Berlin.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)issued a statement condemning the decision to indict the journalists, with Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator saying, “The government’s lack of tolerance shows that it is unable to handle criticism.”

Amnesty International released a statement calling on Egyptian authorities to “immediately drop the charges: against the three journalists. Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty described the developments as “a major setback for media freedom in Egypt,” adding,”The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today – that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities.”

Fifty leading journalists from international news organizations, among them CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the Guardian’s Ian Black, BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, The Economist’s Max Rodenbeck, AP’s John Daniszewski, and more, collectively signed a letter calling for the release of the journalists. The statement read:

“The arrest of these journalists has cast a cloud over press and media freedom in Egypt. We strongly believe that upholding the rights of journalists and permitting the free flow of information is vital to bringing about greater understanding and serves the best interests of all Egyptians and the world.”