Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Egypt put Al-Jazeera journalists on trial today on terrorism-related charges, highlighting concerns the military-backed government is quashing dissent under the guise of protecting national security.
Authorities have accused 20 people, including four foreigners, who they say work for the television station, of sullying Egypt’s image abroad “by airing false news” and backing the Muslim Brotherhood organization that fielded ousted President Mohamed Mursi for office. The station is based in Qatar, whose rulers backed Mursi during his yearlong tenure.
“By putting journalists on trial, the regime is trying to send the message that those who are not going to follow the government narratives are going to be targeted,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told Bloomberg. “The trial has a chilling effect on local and international journalists, we’re seeing many of them expressing fears and feeling threatened and afraid to cover events in Egypt because of these cases.”
Eight of the defendants attended today’s session, and pleaded not guilty to all charges read in a Cairo court. The trial was adjourned to March 5, Al Jazeera reported.
The government began going after the Brotherhood immediately after Mursi’s overthrow in July, imprisoning and trying dozens of its leaders, killing hundreds of its supporters at protests and officially branding it a terrorist group. The crackdown later expanded to include secularist activists who say the government is reinstating the type of police state that existed for three decades under another toppled leader, Hosni Mubarak, a charge it denies.
Critics say the government has put Al Jazeera in its sights because of Qatar’s support for Mursi. The station has confirmed that nine of the 20 on trial are on its staff. The defendants, including Mohamed Fahmy, Al Jazeera English’s Canadian-Egyptian acting bureau chief, and award-winning correspondent Peter Greste of Australia, are accused of fabricating footage to create “unreal scenes” to mislead the world into thinking “the country is witnessing a civil war,” according to a prosecution statement.
“We’re putting our trust in the legal system and we’re confident he will be given a fair trial” Greste’s brother, Andrew Greste, said outside the court. He said he visited his brother Feb. 17 in the prison where he’s been held since December, and that he seemed “mentally and physically remarkably strong.”
Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views, Human Rights Watch said in a statement today.
“Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job,” said Joe Stork, the group’s deputy Middle East director. “The prosecution of these journalists for speaking with Muslim Brotherhood members, coming after the prosecution of protesters and academics, shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating.”
Since Mursi’s ouster, at least five journalists have been killed, 30 assaulted and 11 news outlets raided, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 60 journalists have also been detained. Egypt ranks 159th of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2014 World Press Freedom index.
Egyptian officials have repeatedly denied attempting to curtail freedoms, with the State Information Service saying in a Jan. 30 statement it welcomed objective and neutral coverage.
Fahmy’s father said his son and his colleagues are professional journalists, and “if the trial is fair, he’ll be acquitted.”
“He wasn’t carrying a pistol or weapon to be branded a terrorist, he was doing his job professionally,” Fadel Fahmy said outside the court.
Last month, the private Al Tahrir satellite channel aired a video of Greste and Fahmy’s arrest and the raid of their hotel room in Cairo, which the government says the journalists used as a “media cell” to pursue their aims.
Al-Jazeera condemned the video, arguing the footage sought to demonize its journalists, incite anger against the network and could prejudice the trial.
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