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The Curious Case of #FreeAJStaff

It is an image that has become familiar to us all. Figures with black tape placed over their mouths hold signs that say “journalism is not a crime.” In the last year, this image, promoted by influential journalists like Christiane Amanpour, has permeated social media. The growing international movement for free press had found a focus in one chilling case: Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt.

December 29 marked the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, members of an Al Jazeera team based in Egypt. The journalists were accused of colluding with an outlawed political party, the Muslim Brotherhood. After being imprisoned without charges for a month, they were eventually charged with spreading “false news” in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian who was Acting Bureau Chief of Al Jazeera in Cairo at the time of his arrest, and Australian correspondent Greste were both sentenced to seven years in prison. Mohamed, who is an Egyptian citizen, received an additional three years for possessing a spent bullet casing. This verdict, coupled with similar sentences given to six other journalists in absentia, has been widely denounced as unfair and arbitrary. While Peter Greste has recently been released and deported, the other two remain behind bars awaiting retrial.

In response to the initial backlash against the arrests, the Egyptian Embassy in London released a press statement claiming that the trial had followed the standard “judicial process” and had given the defendants ample opportunity to defend themselves. Egypt’s foreign ministry also responded aggressively, condemning allegations that the charges were false and reiterating the independence of the Egyptian judiciary. Egyptian authorities claim to have significant evidence against the journalists, declaring that their videos allegedly show a distinct bias to the now illegal Muslim Brotherhood. However, a cursory examination of the public evidence reveals that this is hardly the case. The channel’s videos encompass a range of political viewpoints, and there is no evidence to suggest these specific journalists might favor the Muslim Brotherhood. Fahmy had even publicly marched against the Brotherhood before they were overthrown. Moreover, the trial was marred by confusion on the part of the prosecutors. They repeatedly showed evidence that was unrelated to the accusations (like videos of trotting horses and even a song by Gotye). The “experts” drafted by the prosecution to vouch for the channel’s threat to national security also retracted their statements on cross-examination, weakening their argument substantially.

These bizarre flaws in the prosecution’s case make the ultimate conviction all the more incredible. To compound the injustice of the verdict, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi admitted that the journalists should have been deported rather than jailed. While he still upheld the result of the trial, his statement underscored the flaws of the sentencing and, indeed, the unwarranted persecution of the foreign media.

There are several factors behind the Egyptian government’s decision to target the journalists and its present reluctance to release them. The arrests occurred during a crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained power after the revolution against Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood was overthrown a year later in a second round of protests, and subsequently outlawed as a “terrorist organization.” Although it has historically been linked to radical organizations like Al-Qaeda, there is no evidence to suggest that these relations have continued into the 21st century. Nevertheless, the present government under el-Sisi has resolved to purge the Muslim Brotherhood of supporters. Citizens of any affiliation are now treated with increased suspicion. In addition, the Arabic branch of Al Jazeera has long been suspected of bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; The imprisoned journalists may have worked for Al Jazeera English (a separate organization), but this distinction was unclear to the general public.

However, many analysts allege that there may be a darker reason for the arrests, stemming from Egypt’s hostile relations with Qatar. Al Jazeera is based in Doha and was launched as a “foreign policy project” by the Qatari government. As a result, the network (particularly the Arabic version) is often seen as a vehicle for promoting Qatari interests. This is especially rancorous in relation to Egypt, because the Qatari government was notorious for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood. It repeatedly condemned Sisi’s toppling of Mohamed Morsi, in the process antagonizing Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar also offered safe haven to several Islamist leaders who were exiled from Egypt. Sisi’s government is therefore justifiably suspicious of Qatar’s actions. However, it fails to make the distinction between the Qatari government and Al Jazeera English, a separate entity that maintains its autonomy from Middle Eastern politics and has a recent history of impartial reporting.

Egypt’s belligerent actions echo the recent trend of stifling free press in times of political instability. Journalism is becoming an increasingly dangerous profession, as epitomized by the brutal murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American journalists, by ISIL. More than 24 journalists have been arrested in Turkey since December, and several more were arrested in Bangladesh this January. In today’s world, the fourth estate is no longer viewed as a bystander but rather a political player with enormous influence. As a result, journalists are targets by militants and aggressive governments alike.

That being said, persecuted journalists have garnered considerable support worldwide. This phenomenon is particularly evident with respect to the Al Jazeera journalists. Many world leaders have declared their solidarity for Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed. In a published letter from prison, Greste thanked President Obama, along with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, for their support. More recently, Amal Clooney published an article on the Huffington Post criticizing the trial proceedings and calling for Fahmy’s release. The issue has also been popularized among the general public. Last February, the hashtag #FreeAJStaff was posted on social media over 3 million times.

These actions have influenced the Egyptian government. In January, they responded to an appeal from the journalists and ordered a retrial for Greste, after which he was released. On February 12, they granted bail to Fahmy and Mohamed, with a retrial scheduled for February 23 and the possibility of permanent release. While these actions might seem like a radical turnaround on behalf of the Egyptian government, it is more likely they are merely attempting to cut their losses in what has proved to be a disaster for the global image of President Sisi and the nation as a whole. However, it is sobering to realize that though the decision may have satisfied the international community, it has had little effect on Egypt’s domestic policies. On the same day as Greste’s release, 183 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death. The timing of the announcement seems to be a deliberate move to highlight the strength of Egypt’s national control, and illustrates that there is much to be done to improve the country’s human rights record.

In any case, the decision to release Greste appears to be a tacit admission that the premises of his earlier trial were flawed. Al Jazeera and Amnesty International have reiterated the need to put pressure on el-Sisi and Egypt to similarly free Fahmy and Mohamed. We can only hope that they take the hint and #FreeAJStaff.

Article by Mili Mitra; Video by Katy Chu and Salil Singh