A court in Egypt sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists, including an award-winning Australian reporter, to at least seven years in jail, heightening concerns national security is being used as a pretext to curb freedoms.
Authorities had accused 20 people, including four foreigners, of terrorism-related activities in support of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, arguing they sullied Egypt’s image and posed a threat to its security. Australian Peter Greste and Al-Jazeera English’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy each received seven years in prison, while Baher Mohamed received an additional three years on a weapons possession charge.
“It’s an unbelievable result. It’s definitely not what I was expecting,” Greste’s brother, Andrew Greste, said in a phone interview in Egypt’s capital after Cairo Criminal Court Judge Mohamed Shahata read out the verdict. “It’s going to take us a little while to regroup and weigh our options and figure out how to continue the fight.”
The verdicts sparked international condemnation, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who called them “chilling and draconian.” During a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi yesterday, Kerry had called for jailed journalists to be freed while bidding to patch rifts between the allies with promises of more military aid. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she was “appalled” by the sentences.
The defendants were detained in December, part of the crackdown on the Brotherhood that followed the military’s July overthrow of elected President Mohamed Mursi. Qatar’s rulers, who finance Al-Jazeera, had supported Mursi during his yearlong tenure, and the network is perceived in Egypt as biased toward the Brotherhood, which fielded him for the presidency.
The court sentenced 11 more people in absentia to 10 years in prison and two were acquitted.
The offensive against the Brotherhood under then-Defense Minister El-Sisi, during which hundreds of its supporters were killed in clashes with security forces and thousands more, including the deposed president, arrested on charges including murder, brought into question the military-backed government’s commitment to democracy.
“It’s a black day for press freedom in Egypt,” Ahmed Ezzat, director of the legal unit at the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, said by phone. Even under Hosni Mubarak, the autocratic leader deposed in 2011, “there were some lines the authorities wouldn’t cross when it came to freedom of journalists. Now, it’s much worse.”
At a press conference in Baghdad today, Kerry said it was “critical for Sisi to move quickly to address the international concerns about this case.” Relations with the U.S. were strained by Mursi’s overthrow and the subsequent steps against his supporters.
Bishop, in comments aired on Sky News, said “We are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world.” Al-Jazeera said on its website that the verdict “defies logic, sense and any semblance of justice.”
Egyptian authorities have branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, marginalizing what had been the main opposition movement under Mubarak. Al-Jazeera, which has been accused of bias at one point or another by most Arab governments, has been a repeated target since Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.
The satellite network’s coverage of the dispersal of pro-Mursi encampments in Cairo last year that left hundreds dead cemented a perception in Egypt that it sided with the Brotherhood.
Its Qatari government sponsors had injected billions of dollars in aid and grants to help prop up Egypt’s moribund economy during Mursi’s first and only year in office. His ouster left a rift between the two nations and activists say Al-Jazeera’s journalists were dragged into the fray as pawns.
“The trial clearly sends a message to foreign, as well as local, journalists covering Egypt that they must be biased toward to the government or they can be persecuted and easily have fabricated charges filed against them,” Ezzat, the activist, said.
Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a phone interview that the court had delivered a “shocking, politicized and an unprecedented verdict,” and called for those jailed to be immediately released.