In a sign of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature, a Cairo court today passed sentences ranging from seven to ten years in prison on Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who have already been held for more than 160 days.
“Not content with criminalizing all political opposition, the Egyptian authorities are pursuing a policy of gagging news media that try to offer a different take on reality from the government’s,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “We point out that such arrests and arbitrary convictions violate the provisions of the new constitution, especially article 71.”
Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Al-Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief, who has Canadian and Egyptian dual nationality, and Peter Greste, an Australian reporter, were given seven-year terms on charges of "broadcasting false reports" with the aim of supporting the Islamist movement and harming Egypt’s image.
Baher Mohamed, who is Egyptian, received the same sentence plus an extra three-year jail term on additional charges, giving him a combined sentence of ten years in prison.
Of the six other detained defendants, four were sentenced to seven years in prison and two were acquitted. Eleven other defendants who were tried in absentia –including two British journalists and a Dutch journalist – were given ten-year jail terms.
The 16 Egyptian defendants were accused of membership of a “terrorist organization” (the Muslim Brotherhood) and of trying to harm Egypt’s image. The four foreign journalists were accused to trying to support Muslim Brotherhood by means of false reports.
Journalists continue to be subject to arbitrary arrest in Egypt although the new constitution guarantees freedom of expression and opinion (article 65), media freedom (article 70) and media independence (article 72).
The government established after President Mohammed Morsi’s removal in July 2013 has systematically persecuted media regarded as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Jazeera has been one of the leading targets of this anti-Brotherhood witch-hunt, with the authorities closing its offices and arresting its journalists arbitrarily.
The campaign was intensified after the government’s decision on 25 December to add the Muslim Brotherhood to its list of terrorist organizations. It is now prohibited for journalists to possess or disseminate Muslim Brotherhood statements or recordings.
The extreme polarization of the Egyptian media (between those that support and those that oppose Morsi) is reinforcing the polarization of Egyptian society as a whole. As seen again during the recent election campaign, many media are overtly supporting the current government and, as a result, failing to play their watchdog role.
A total of six journalists have been killed by live rounds since 3 July 2013. Most were killed while covering pro-Morsi demonstrations. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than 65 journalists were arrested for varying periods of time between 3 July and 30 April.
In a recent open letter, Reporters Without Borders urged Egypt’s new ruler, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, to act as a guarantor of freedom of the media and information and to release all detained journalists.
Egypt is ranked 159th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.