The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged Egyptian judges to dismiss terrorism-related charges against 20 Al Jazeera journalists and to immediately release those who remain in detention.
Three weeks after their indictment by Egyptian prosecutors, the news photographers and correspondents are due to appear in a Cairo criminal court tomorrow on charges that include reporting "false news" and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood political group, which was declared a terrorist organisation following the arrest of its leader and ex-Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi.
IPI made an emergency visit to Cairo from Jan. 25 to 29 to press for the freedom of detained journalists and to urge the country's interim leaders to improve safety for news workers. In addition to arrest, journalists and others have faced police and mob violence during demonstrations that have flared since Morsi's ouster on July 3, 2013.
"The initial findings of the IPI tip to Egypt suggest that the security forces have been systematically accusing journalists of unsupported charges of aiding terrorists or spreading 'false news' in an effort to frighten all journalists and hinder independent news-gathering," IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. "Some of the accused have already spent weeks or even months in detention without ever being charged in a court of law. We now urge the judges to throw out these charges and send the the message to the security services that Egypt must live up to its own legal protections for press freedom and that the bullying of journalists cannot be tolerated."
Galina Sidorova, chairwoman of IPI's Executive Board and part of the six-member IPI delegation to Cairo, also urged Egyptian authorities to ensure a safer working environment for journalists.
"IPI is concerned that Egyptian and foreign journalists have become targets for both the security forces and vigilante mobs, which means that reporters and photographers are put in the unacceptable position of having to choose between doing their jobs or risking their own safety," Sidorova said. "Egypt's public authorities have a responsibility to send the message that anyone who wrongfully attacks a journalist – be it the police or mobs – will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Of the 20 Al Jazeera journalists charged on Jan. 29, 16 are Egyptians and four are foreigners. Nairobi-based correspondent Peter Greste, an Australian, and Al Jazeera English Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, were being held at the Tora prison in Cairo. Sue Turton and Dominic Kane were accused of similar charges, although both the Britons had already left Egypt before the charges were announced.
The Interior Ministry accused the foreign defendants of broadcasting illegally from a makeshift bureau in a Cairo hotel, spreading "false news", "damaging national security" and possessing materials promoting "incitement". The charges against the Egyptian employees included supporting a terrorist organisation.
On Tuesday, six international news organisations – BBC News, ITN, Sky, Reuters, NBC News and ABC News – issued an open letter to Egyptian authorities calling for the release of Greste and his colleagues
Earlier this month, a Cairo criminal court found Egyptian television cameraman Mohammed Badr not guilty of carrying a weapon during a demonstration. Badr was acquitted on Feb. 2 along with 60 others arrested during a clash with security police on July 16, 2013.
Badr is employed by Mubasher Misr, the Egyptian affiliate of Al Jazeera that has been banned from the country, but which continues to broadcast from outside Egypt. The cameraman's lawyers told IPI that he was accused of carrying a handgun in his equipment bag while covering last July's clashes in Ramses Square, a charge they have consistently denied.
The IPI delegation that travelled to Cairo in January included four members of IPI's executive board. The delegates met with a number of individuals in order to assess the state of press freedom in the country, including government representatives – such as Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and the chairman of the State Information System, Ambassador Salah A. El-Sadek – as well as lawyers, journalists and human rights groups.
IPI plans to release a report on the findings of its visit to Egypt in the coming weeks.