International support for imprisoned reporters grows as climate of fear spreads among the media.
The Al Jazeera journalist appeared confused and disheveled after having slept on the concrete floor without a blanket or pillow in an insect-infested jail holding Egypt’s worst criminals. He had no idea what day it was.
Mohamed Fahmy – an Egyptian-Canadian – has now been held for 25 days without charge. His alleged crime: “broadcasting false news”, and operating unregistered equipment. Prison guards refused to allow him a sleeping bag and pillow, nor medical attention for an injured shoulder.
“I don’t know Mohamed’s case but I hate Al Jazeera. Anyone who works for Al Jazeera deserves whatever happens to him,” a prison guard told journalists from the McClatchy news agency who managed to get in to see Fahmy.
Fahmy – along with Al Jazeera’s Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed and Australian correspondent Peter Greste – have now languished in the country’s notorious Tora Prison in separate cells for weeks without formal charge. Al Jazeera colleagues from sister stations – Abdullah al-Shami and Mohammed Badr – have been imprisoned for five months meanwhile.
The arrests of Fahmy, Mohamed, and Greste on December 29 were made to preserve Egypt’s “national security and the highest interests of the country”, the prosecutor’s office said.
It also said some of the detained journalists confessed to being members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – without specifying who – a claim that Al Jazeera has denied.
Rawya Rageh, an Al Jazeera correspondent, has known Fahmy for a decade and described him as an “ultimate expert” on Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula region.
“His work for CNN in Egypt also earned him great respect among his peers,” she said. “He was never one for superficial journalism, and it showed clearly in the award-winning work he produced from the troubled area, where few journalists dared to venture.”
Al Jazeera correspondent Nazanine Moshiri has known Greste for three years. She described the allegations leveled against the awarding-winning journalist as “absurd”.
“Peter is one of the most driven journalists I know, and his attention to detail and accuracy is renowned,” she said. Moshiri recalled Greste’s cautious approach while both covered Somalia’s presidential election in 2012.
“I had received some exclusive information, which had serious implications for one of the candidates. I trusted Peter’s opinion on the matter. As always Peter was cautious wanting to get multiple sources before the network went with the story,” she said.
“This is just one example of many which makes the accusations about Peter spreading ‘false news’ so absolutely absurd. I know that Peter would be the last person to do such a thing.”
Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were remanded to 15 more days in custody on January 8.
Al Jazeera’s Managing Director Al Anstey also backed the accuracy of his journalists’ reportage before their arrest. “The team and our coverage from Egypt upheld the highest standards of journalism right the way through. We refute these allegations wholeheartedly.”
Egypt is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists with six media members killed in 2013. Forty-five journalists were assaulted, 44 detained without charge, and 11 news organisations raided since July last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“We call on authorities to release all journalists being held behind bars in Egypt,” said CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon in a letter to Egyptian interim-President Adly Mansour. “Journalists everywhere should be able to work openly and freely without fear of reprisal.”
Reporting without fear
The crackdown on Egypt’s media intensified after the July 3 coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group has since been designated as a “terrorist organisation” by Egypt’s military-led interim government.
General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi led the coup and the bloody military crackdowns that have killed hundreds of people, mostly Morsi supporters.
A leaked video recording before the coup highlights the general’s disdain for journalists. “We must re-stablish red lines for the media. We need to find a new way of neutralising them,” the army chief is heard saying. “It takes a long time before you’re able to affect and control the media. We are working on this and we are achieving more positive results.”
In the often cut-throat media business, one thing the arrests in Egypt have done is bolster solidarity among journalists. Members from more than 30 media organisations – including CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, BBC’s Lyse Doucet, and The Associated Press’ John Daniszewski – signed a statement of support calling on Egyptian authorities to release Al Jazeera’s staff.
|Some of my colleagues are certainly worried about the heavy handed behavior towards journalists. They’re wondering who is going to be detained next.
– Alastair Beach, Cairo correspondent for The Independent newspaper
Alastair Beach is the Cairo correspondent for The Independent newspaper, who also signed the statement. He said the arrests have sent a chill throughout the media in Egypt.
“Some of my colleagues are certainly worried about the heavy handed behavior towards journalists. They’re wondering who is going to be detained next,” he told Al Jazeera.
Beach said, however, that journalists also face danger from pro-military supporters. “From my own personal experience, the worst hostility has been from non-state actors, particularly the pro-regime crowds after the fall of Morsi. That’s when I’ve had to really watch my back.”
While Al Jazeera’s staff endure the abysmal conditions of Egypt’s Tora Prison on the outskirts of Cairo, Greste’s mother Lois described the toll taken on her family at a news conference on Tuesday.
“It’s shattering to the whole family, and it’s a living nightmare at the moment. Until he gets out the nightmare is going to continue,” she said.
Moshiri said she’s also worried about the impact the detentions will have on journalists around the world who are simply trying to report the truth.
“If the Egyptian authorities can get away with this, what’s to say other authorities – particularly in Africa where I report from – won’t do the same? I hope the Egyptian government will set an example and release these journalists, and show the world that they too believe in the truth.”