This week the trial of 20 journalists resumed in Egypt. They stand accused of joining or aiding a terrorist group, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, which is being broadly oppressed by the interim government after being ousted in July.
The 20 people include Al-Jazeeera correspondent and Australian citizen, Peter Greste, who was arrested along with Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed at the end of December. The three men were seized at a raid at a Cairo hotel on 29 December. It was Greste's first assignment in Egypt. Al-Jazeera Arabic reporter, Abdallah Elshamy, was arrested back in August. He is among 16 Egyptian journalists charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation and "harming national unity." Greste is one of four foreigners charged with "collaborating with the Egyptians by providing them with money, equipment, information" and "airing false news." The other three foreigners – British Al-Jazeera reporters Dominic Kane and Sue Turton, and Dutch newspaper and radio journalist Rena Netjes – have all left the country. Of the 20, 12 are being tried in absentia.
Al-Jazeera is a regular target for Egypt's military-led interim government. The broadcaster is owned by the government of Qatar, which broadly backs the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's authorities view the channel as a mouthpiece for the Islamist opposition, a charge that Al-Jazeera's management vehemently deny. "The charges just don't hold water," Heather Allan, head of newsgathering for Al-Jazeera English, recently told the BBC. "Egypt is a very important story for us. We've always been there, we believe we have been very fair."
All of the accused deny supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government in December. Before the hearing began this week, Mohamed shouted "journalists are not terrorists." Speaking in court at a bail hearing late last month, Greste asserted his innocence: "I arrived in Cairo two weeks before my arrest. As you can see my knowledge of Arabic is zero. The idea that I could have any association with the Muslim Brotherhood is frankly preposterous." Fahmy stressed that they worked for Al-Jazeera English, not the local branch. The men were refused bail.
The case is being seen as an attack on freedom of speech. An increasingly polarised political context has been reflected in the media, and the military-led authorities have been clamping down on local and international reporters. It started on the night of the military takeover, when five pro-Islamist TV stations were temporarily taken off air. The legal assault on anyone associated with Al-Jazeera, which is an international broadcaster, is unprecedented. This year, Reporters without Borders ranked Egypt 159th out of 180 countries for press freedom. Egypt denies that the trial is an attack on free speech, saying that the Al-Jazeera journalists were working illegally because they did not have press passes. But clearly, as the accusation of holding illegal meetings with and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood shows, it goes deeper than that.
Last week's bail refusal came as a surprise to some, as the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had personally spoken to Egypt's interim Prime Minister Adly Mansour. The White House has raised concerns about the trial, with Obama calling for the release of these journalists. The British foreign secretary William Hague has said he is "very concerned" and urged "the Egyptian interim government to demonstrate its commitment to an inclusive political process which allows for full freedom of expression and for journalists to operate without the fear of persecution." These comments have fallen on deaf ears, as have worldwide protests in support of the imprisoned journalists.
It is always tricky for international powers to intervene in the legal system of another sovereign nation. There are limits to what they can do. But despite these natural restrictions, some have suggested that the international condemnation has been half-hearted. Hague expressed concern but stopped short of all-out condemnation. In pleading with Mansour to free Greste, Abbott stressed that he supported the interim government in designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. There are two things going on here. First of all, western powers are reluctant to alienate the Egyptian authorities, given the strategic importance of the country. Secondly, they are aware that Egypt today, turning towards regional allies like Saudi Arabia, is less concerned with the views of the west because it is less reliant on these alliances than in days gone by.
Earlier this week, government minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour told the BBC's Newshour programme that putting the journalists on trial was a bad decision, but showed no signs of backing down: "This is a big mistake. But even journalists have to abide by the law of the land," he said.
With recent high profile mass trials, such as the court that handed out death sentences to 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, anxiety is running high. The authorities seem determined to push ahead, and the recent refusal to grant even a conditional release shows a level of inflexibility. As things stand, the outlook is not good.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.