The sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt on terrorism-related charges has sparked anger and outrage around the
world. The verdict has brought a landslide of international condemnation and stunned world leaders who asked the Egyptian
president to intervene. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, however, has refused to intervene saying Egypt's authorities would respect the independence of the judiciary.
World leaders have reacted with varying degrees of indignation to the decision by the Egyptian judiciary to convict Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed on charges of assisting the banned Muslim Brotherhood and “false” reporting. Each of them has been sentenced to a minimum seven-year prison after a trial for more than four months.
US Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the verdict as “chilling and draconian”; the White House urged President Al-Sisi to pardon the journalists while pointing out the rulings were the latest in a series of prosecutions “that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance.”
The United Nations has condemned both the trial and “politicising” of the judiciary. “Harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists, including bloggers, as well as violent attacks by unidentified assailants, have become commonplace,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
Pertinent to note is what Pillay adds, “It is not a crime to criticise the authorities, or to interview people who hold unpopular
views. Journalists and civil society members should not be arrested, prosecuted, beaten up or sacked for reporting on sensitive issues. They should not be shot for trying to report or film things we, the public, have a right to know are happening.”
Rights violations is not something new in Egypt and has taken a serious turn for the past couple of years. In August, the
International Committee to Protect Journalists noted, “Perhaps nowhere did press freedom decline more dramatically in 2013 than Egypt, where persecution of critical reporters under President Mohamed Morsi was radically reversed mid-way through the year when the military ousted him from office and launched a crackdown on pro-Morsi news outlets. At least six journalists had been killed as of late in the year, making the country the third deadliest place to work after Syria and Iraq.”
Little has changed since then it seems. Condemning the sentencing of the Al Jazeera journalists, British Prime Minister David Cameron finds it “completely appalling” while Australia says its “government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case.”
But as indications are, Cairo will not budge, as is evident from the Egyptian foreign ministry’s strong statement that it “strongly rejects any comment by any foreign party shedding doubt on the independence of Egyptian judiciary and its fair rulings.”
Indeed, as Amnesty International said, the Egyptian court’s verdict spelled a “dark day” for press freedom and more so because the sentencing is in spite of the fact that in about 12 court sessions the prosecution failed to produce a “single shred of solid evidence” linking the journalists to a terrorist organisation or proving that they had 'falsified' news footage.
One feels the impact of the Cairo wrongdoing the most with The New York Times on Sunday printing its back page blank with only the message -- “This is what happens when you silence journalists – along with the hashtag, #FreeAJStaff and the URL, aljazeera.com/freeajstaff.
Ben de Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, said he was "appalled and deeply worried by the sentences and what they mean for media freedom in Egypt. “I think what the Egyptians are trying to do is intimidate the media at home and abroad to stop proper journalistic coverage of events in Egypt. The freedoms that Egyptians fought so hard for in the Arab spring are rubbished by these sentences," he said.
The National Union of Journalists has urged the British government to do everything possible to get the sentences overturned. "This is anoutrageous decision and travesty of justice made by a kangaroo court. This is a brutal regime which is attacking and arresting many journalists to attempt to silence them and prevent them from reporting events," said the union's general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet.
Why Al Jazeera
Qatar-owned Al Jazeera network has faced mounting pressure from the Egyptian authorities since former Muslim Brotherhood backed president, Mohamed Morsi, was deposed in a military takeover last year. Egyptian authorities accuse the network of being biased toward Morsi and acting as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, a claim the network denies. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The network's Arabic-language Egypt channel in particular was widely viewed as giving favorable coverage for the pro-Morsi camp, though the English channel, where the sentenced journalists worked, was seen as more objective.
The Qatari government, perceived as a supporter of the Brotherhood, pumped billions of dollars in aid to support Egypt’s sinking economy during the 11-month term of Mohamed Morsi. Once Mursi was forced from power by the Egyptian military, the retribution against the Brotherhood and its backers was swift and brutal.
In fact, Amnesty described the three journalists as “pawns” in the bitter geopolitical dispute between Egypt and Qatar, the oil-rich Gulf country that finances Al Jazeera.
The unprecedented trial of journalists on terror charges was tied up in the government’s fierce crackdown on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood since the ouster of Morsi by Al-Sisi, then army chief. Further fueling accusations that the trial was politically motivated is the Egyptian government’s deep enmity with Qatar.
Also the trial has been a drawn out and often confusing process. The prosecution presented evidence that included videos of a trotting horse, and images retrieved from Al Jazeera hard drives that were in use before the three journalists came to work for the channel. That evidence had nothing to do with Egyptian politics or Al Jazeera.
"The evidence is a joke," said Sha'ban Saed, a lawyer of some of the defendants.
Indeed, when considered that the charge against the journalists, as per Mohamed Lotfy, Executive Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom, was based on a single empty bullet casing found in the possession of one of them.
The prosecution's case was also severely undermined by the retraction of key testimonies from three lead witnesses, who admitted during proceedings they did not know whether the three journalists had undermined national security – contradicting written claims they made before the trial.
Analysts are of the view that the sentences serve as a stark reminder of the intimidation experienced by journalists on the ground – whether foreign or Egyptian – and the dismal environment in which political dissent and opposition navigate at great personal risk.