Offering another glimmer of hope in the otherwise dark saga of the Al Jazeera staff trials in Egypt, on August 21, 2014 lawyers for three of the staff confirmed their file for appeal. This confirmation comes 236 days after their initial detention, and nearly three months after their sentencing, when judges at the Giza Criminal Court wrote what they likely thought would be the closing chapter of Al Jazeera journalists’ trial. The case, dubbed by some domestic media as the “Marriott Cell” case, included a total of 20 defendants. Four of the defendants hold citizenships outside Egypt which led to increased interest by foreign media and authorities. While recent statements from the Egyptian president may suggest the possibility of a presidential pardon after all court appeals have been exhausted, no appeal or pardon can hide the fact that the case exemplifies a dire situation for media in Egypt.
In the ruling, the court sentenced seven of the accused to seven years in maximum-security prison, sentenced 11 others in absentia to ten years in prison, and found two of the defendants innocent. Verdicts were issued on various charges, including joining a terrorist group, aiding and abetting a terrorist organization, and spreading false news. All the charges were related to the work the defendants were conducting with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera.
Observers who attended the 12 court sessions that took place from February to June, 2014, concluded that no evidence was presented condemning the accused of the crimes with which they had been charged (and most convicted). According to Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter Haitham al-Tabei, who attended all the court sessions, the evidence presented by the prosecution included video footage from Al Jazeera’s broadcast and low quality, unintelligible sound recordings; the prosecution presented no evidence to prove that the reporters manipulated the video or broadcast any false news.
According to defendant Mohamed Fahmy’s brother Adel, the prosecution even went so far as to enforce conditions to hinder the defense from seeing the evidence. Adel Fahmy had said in a press statement: “The prosecution requested 1.2 million Egyptian pounds to hand over the evidence to the defense lawyers to prepare their defense,” adding “the whole case is about hindering justice. We respect the Egyptian judiciary but what happened today is indescribably unfair.”
While the Al Jazeera team was indeed operating in Egypt without a license from the authorities, often journalists’ licenses are not granted due to administrative obstacles; this lesser crime would not carry the heavy sentences that were ultimately handed down.
On the surface, the verdict drew the curtain on a six-month chapter. However, while it may have ended one chapter of the case, the verdict did nothing to halt a storm of international condemnation, including Canada, Australia and the United States.
The Canadian government, which has been severely criticized for not taking a stronger stance in defense of Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, voiced disappointment over the verdict. Lynne Yelich, Canada’s Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular), voiced concern that “the judicial process that led to his verdict is inconsistent with Egypt’s democratic aspirations.”
The White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told journalists that the procedure was a “blow to democratic progress in Egypt.” In a surprise visit to Cairo on the eve of the verdict, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed the U.S.’s strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians, and many at the time expected the visit to encourage a more lenient sentencing. Upon learning of the severity of the sentences, Kerry contacted Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to inform Shoukry of the U.S. government’s “serious” discontent with the verdict, which he described as “chilling and draconian.” While some U.S. officials have expressed the need for U.S. aid to Egypt to be used as a bargaining chip in this case, Mohamed Fahmy himself has stated his displeasure about his name being used as part of that pressure.
These and other strong condemnations from the international community truly underscored the opposing reaction from Egyptian officials. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi—who many had called upon to issue a presidential pardon in the case—also commented on the international condemnation of the verdict. He said he would not interfere with judicial verdicts and called the judiciary “independent and well-respected,” adding that state institutions were untouchable. However, in what some considered an encouraging sign, Sisi met with local newspaper editors and recognized that the verdict had “very negative effects.” He reiterated that he had no influence over the trial and added that he would have preferred that the defendants had been deported from the country. Although his statements were idealistic (Egyptian citizens legally cannot be deported), he renewed hope that perhaps a presidential pardon was still possible once all court appeals have been exhausted.
Most recently, the Egyptian State Information Service released a statement in yet another defense of the verdict. This statement, which details the charges brought against the journalists, defends the courts’ adherence to norms of due process, and cites numerous examples of international jurisprudence that allows for restrictions on freedom of expression where the former may threaten national security. What is particularly interesting about this statement is that it does, for the first time, recognize the proceedings as being fundamentally restrictive for freedom of expression, while at the same time defending this restriction—the previous statement provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its embassies cited constitutional guarantees for the freedom of the press and listed all the freely-operating correspondents and media in the country.
Over 240 Days Later: Where is Journalism in Egypt Headed?
The disproportionately defensive statements from government officials mask an unfortunate truth: After the popular movement of June 3, 2013 and the ouster of President Muhammed Morsi, the Egyptian security authorities moved against journalists. This movement resulted in 13 television channels and websites being stormed and shut down. While some of these channels were innocent of any wrongdoing, a number of them were actively inciting hatred and violence against not only the Egyptian state and army but also religious minorities, especially Coptic Christians and Shia Muslims. The movement also led to 26 journalists being apprehended, 115 physical attacks on journalists in the line of work, and 43 journalists injured by gunfire or birdshot. It also resulted in the death of seven journalists since June 30, 2014 according to the Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression’s annual report for 2013. According to a report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists remain in custody to this day, pending criminal cases, including the recently sentenced Al Jazeera journalists.
As was the case with the Al Jazeera trial, this media crackdown has been framed as an effort to curb terrorism and incitement to violence. And, indeed, some of the initially-targeted channels were known to have used airtime to incite violence. However, the parameters of what constitutes hate speech are clearly defined by international law, and the failure to properly apply this law is of grave concern.
When journalists constantly face threats of imprisonment, injury, or even death, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how they might be able to carry out their work. Additionally, the concerns over the politicization of trials like the Al Jazeera one send signals to journalists that their work must not cross some vague red lines. In light of these dangers that surround the work of journalists in Egypt, it is difficult to foresee amelioration in Egypt’s dismal situation for press freedom.
The convicts have now spent over 230 nights in jail, and official rhetoric seems to be loosening (as was evidenced with Sisi’s mention of regret about the trial). However, the Egyptian authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the real issue at hand, or at best try to avoid it. They ignore the apprehension of journalists and the creation of an environment discourages journalists from reporting freely and accurately. By failing to address this violation, the authorities continue to ignore the fact that their duty is to clear the way for professional journalists to do their job regardless of their nationality or network.