In perhaps the greatest irony in the fight for democracy in the Middle East, two Al Jazeera English journalists have been sentenced to seven years in jail and one to ten years by an Egyptian court under the pretext of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to broadcast false reports. The guilty verdicts were announced by Judge Mohammed Nagi Sehata against Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed, the last of whom was sentenced an additional three years (to the original seven) for possession of a single spent police bullet as a souvenir.
Less than twenty-four hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Cairo visit to renew Egypt’s “important partnership” with Washington, President El-Sisi and his court’s verdict have set off an international backlash against the nation’s atrocious crackdown on news media freedom and political dissent.
Following an illegitimate raid on Al-Jazeera’s makeshift office in the Marriott Hotel in December began a convoluted thirteen session trial that was characterized by absurd allegations and a litany of flaws. As Amnesty International, one of only two organizations to observe every session, noted: “the prosecution failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence.”
Although the prosecution’s entire case line rested on the assertion that the journalists had endangered Egyptian national security, its testimony of a committee of ‘experts’ from state television fell through under cross examination in the trial’s tenth hearing, with three of said experts explicitly admitting they could not identify the role of the journalists in the supposed endangerment. Moreover, prosecutors also presented various irrelevant and incomprehensible evidence including footage of horses by Sky News Arabia, a BBC documentary on Somalia, and family photographs from the defendants’ laptops. Despite the questionable evidence, prosecutors continuously blocked defense lawyers from accessing the entire collection of videos that was presented as evidence and demanded an unaffordable sum of £100,000 to view them.
Clearly, the charges are farcical, as has been increasingly described by rights advocates around the world. Mr. Greste, one of the three journalists in question, is not a Muslim, does not speak Arabic, and even participated in a march calling for the resignation of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last June. The next month, he showed his support for the new military-backed government in another public demonstration, the same regime that has now sentenced him to seven years in prison.
Although the three journalists have been accused of fabricating videos of civil strife, protests and public dissidence was so commonplace at the time of the arrests that it would have been much easier to actually film the footage rather than falsify them. Clearly, the new military rule is carving the tenets of democracy from within, using the sentencing as an act of authoritarian rule that remains firmly rooted in power despite the public’s desire for democracy and freedom.
To President El-Sisi, the sentencing may be nothing more than a public show of his power and unwillingness to accept criticism. What he doesn’t understand, however, is that journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. The arrest of these three men is a heresy, and it will not stop the masses from uniting against the decisions of its government. Journalism has an incredible and unusual capacity “to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens,” and it is becoming obvious that El-Sisi is threatened by this omnipresent force.
At the moment, America and the West are in the awkward position of at least in appearance, allying themselves with an authoritarian leader in the Middle East. Beyond the trauma and injustices brought to the three journalists, the democratic institutions of the world have a responsibility to protect the freedom of speech and press, some of the very foundations that the Egyptians, freedom fighters, and journalists from around the world are sacrificing their lives for.
“Egypt Court Sentences Al Jazeera Journalists.” Al Jazeera. 23 June 2014. Web.
Kingsley, Patrick. “Six Flaws in the Case against Three Jailed Al-Jazeera Journalists.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 24 June 2014. Web.
Kirkpatrick, David. “Egypt Convicts 3 Journalists; U.S. Is Critical.” The New York Times. 23 June 2014. Web.
“Principles of Journalism.” Pew Research Journalism Project. Pew Research Center. Web.