It is important for the Egyptian government to know that imprisoning the journalists is a wrong path, and that defying the world to suppress the media is not only against international laws, but also a fundamental breach of civility that must be halted.
Egypt intensified its growing reputation for suppressing basic human freedom and rights Monday, with the sentencing of two Al Jazeera journalists to seven years in prison. A third staff was jailed for 10 years, the three extra years allegedly for possession of weapons, in a verdict that has outraged the world but hardly surprised many.
Those convicted are respected journalists who previously worked for reputable international news organizations including the BBC, New York Times and CNN. They were reporting for Al Jazeera’s English-language network at the time of their arrest.
Peter Greste, an Australian national, worked for the BBC and led Al Jazeera’s East Africa bureau before deploying to Egypt as turmoil gripped the North African nation after the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president. Mr. Greste spent only a few days in Egypt before he was arrested.
Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen of Egyptian descent, previously worked for CNN and The New York Times; while Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, formerly worked for the Japanese news organization, The Asahi Shimbun.
The Egyptian authorities accused the journalists, who had been held for six months, of aiding the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood, spreading falsehood, and threatening Egypt’s security. Several students were also sentenced on claims they collaborated with the journalists to generate incendiary news reports.
In what appears a sham process, Judge Mohammed Shehata, who led a panel of three, announced the sentences without explanation while the prosecutors showed images of Mr. Greste’s family vacation and horses grazing in Luxor, Egypt as prove of the so-called falsehood.
It is clear that the serious charges against the accused journalists were not proven and that the journalists were punished for doing their jobs. The detention and prosecution of these journalists as well as the harsh sentences handed them were not targeted at the media alone, but at every voice of dissent in Egypt.
No government in the 21st century should behave this way, much more a government that claims to be moving away from an autocratic past to democracy. Egypt understands how critical free press is to a modern society built on democratic ethos and aspirations.
When Egypt descended into a bloody unrest in 2011, millions around the world stood by Egyptians, offering prayers for a peaceful and prosperous nation. In the end, hundreds, if not thousands of Egyptians paid the supreme price for freedom from decades of dictatorship.
The solidarity arose largely in response to details provided by hundreds of journalists and news outlets who took the risk to cover the crisis. Al Jazeera played a significant role in telling those important stories.
Despite the gains of that revolution, sinister signs emerged rapidly from Egypt in July 2013 when the military, led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, dethroned Mohammed Morsi. Mr. Al-Sisi is believed to have ordered the killings of thousands of peaceful protesters; whose demonstration were well covered by Al Jazeera.
Now the president, Mr. Al-Sisi cannot claim ignorance of what happened and is happening in his country. Also, Egypt’s denial Monday that its judicial decision in sentencing the journalists bore no political interference cannot stand. After all, Mr. Al-Sisi had openly spoken about the undesirability of a limitless and free press on claims of national security.
It is important for Mr. Al-Sisi and his government to know that this is a wrong path, and that defying the world to suppress the media is not only against international laws, but also a fundamental breach of civility that must be halted.
This kind of verdict does nothing to support Egypt’s claim of transition to democracy, and certainly confirms to the rest of the World that this important nation is not, under Mr. Al-Sisi, prepared to take leadership roles in Africa and the Middle East.
The only sensible response from the government now is to retrace its steps and immediately release the imprisoned journalists. There can be no justice where there is no freedom.
It is heartwarming that Britain, Australia, U.S. and Canada have all denounced the conviction, and have pledged diplomatic pressures to free the imprisoned journalists. That must be done immediately.
Shamefully, while the African Union, AU, suspended Egypt following the coup that removed Mr. Morsi, and has only readmitted the country with Mr. Al-Sisi’s election, the AU has failed badly to condemn the treatment of the journalists, or take decision on the matter.
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