With less than a week left before the 30 July retrial of the remaining two Al-Jazeera journalists detained in Egypt, tensions are running high over what might happen next. The Egyptian government is currently holding Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed on charges of inciting terrorism and being a threat to national security; their colleague Peter Greste was held on the same charges until February. Not only do the journalists and Al-Jazeera deny the allegations, but there has also been insufficient evidence to support the charges. All of the journalists have suffered since their arrest by the Egyptian authorities on 29 December 2013, facing psychological torture and solitary confinement.
The allegations stem from coverage of the protests against the 2013 coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, and subsequent reports about the coup regime’s violation of human rights. Egyptians from across the spectrum joined the struggle for the democracy that people had died for; not all of them were Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who was the general behind the coup, went on to condemn the Brotherhood as a “terrorist” organisation and banned its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The hardening of the media crackdown in Egypt is making journalism an increasingly dangerous profession in the country. Both analysis and news are forbidden to stray from the state narrative, which in many cases simply consists of lies to cover up unjustified institutional violence. The killing of journalists is indiscriminate and even pro-regime reporters have been subject to state violence, as authorities act on an “assault now investigate later” basis. Mayada Ashraf was a pro-regime journalist who was killed by the authorities. On 28 March last year she was covering nationwide protests sparked by the announcement that Al-Sisi was going to resign from the army and run for president. Her last piece referred to the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and she worked for Al-Dustoor, an outlet that is known for its pro-regime stance. Her colleague Alam Hassanan said that protestors were running away from the police and she was running with them when she was shot in the back of the head.
Anti-regime journalists, however, suffer the most. At the very least, they are spied on, stalked and threatened. Many have been sentenced to death for “harming national security.” The latest example of this is Walid Abdel Raouf Shalaby, who was sentenced to death in April. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is now the sixth most dangerous country in the world for the profession.
Censorship is also a problem that has reached an all-time high degree in Egypt, because of the increased capabilities of the authorities to crack down on civilians. Ordinary Egyptians have been arrested and tortured for a Facebook status or a tweet and a disproportionate number of journalists who have been subjected to state abuse work online; print journalism has always been rather staid in its views and undemocratic.
Many media outlets have either been banned or forced to close their offices as a result of the crackdown, including Al-Jazeera and Turkey’s Anadolu News Agency. Massacres have also been denied; Neshron News, for example, claimed that fewer than 40 people “died” (they weren’t killed) in the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya massacre, when it has been confirmed by international organisations, including Human Rights Watch, that Egyptian security forces killed over 1,000 people on that day. Even religious rhetoric has to match government policy on “modernising Islam” by encouraging women to take off their hijabs; at the same time, though, there has been a violent cracking down against homosexuals (who have never been tolerated in Egyptian society to begin with) to ensure that the proposed “modernisation” does not lead to a Westernisation of morals.
It must be taken into consideration that the legal system in which Al-Jazeera‘s lawyers are trying to prove their journalists’ innocence is the same system that arrested 78 children last November for allegedly sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood; tortured female students who were taking part in peaceful protests; hosted mass executions; and arrested thousands of perceived Brotherhood sympathisers indiscriminately without any reason or fair trial and subjected them to the most barbaric torture, including electrocution, rape and excruciating stress positions.
The Egyptian security forces did not warn Al-Jazeera‘s journalists that their reports were breaching national security, nor did the company receive a diplomatic warning about its staff. Instead, it was accused of paying $1.5m to people on the street to fabricate protests for the reporters to cover; no evidence has been submitted to support such claims. The journalists were simply arrested and branded as terrorists with no evidence. In addition, the Egyptian government attempted to tarnish Al-Jazeera‘s integrity because neither the journalists nor the company were prepared to parrot state propaganda.
The likely outcome of retrial is unpredictable. With a history of delaying the hearings in this case, it is very likely that it will be postponed yet again, given that the legal system is proving itself not only to be incompetent, but also politically motivated and brutal. The state of both the judiciary and the media in Egypt depict the extent of paranoia and insecurity within the political elite.
The only hope for a positive outcome is that Peter Greste was released and the German and Egyptian authorities bowed to pressure from the international community when Al-Jazeera journalist Ahmed Mansour was detained in Berlin at the Egyptian government’s request for “harming Egypt’s national security”. It is highly unlikely that the journalists will be sentenced to death, but they could well serve a jail term. With the Egyptian judiciary being one of the most unstable and politicised institutions in the country, though, nothing should come as a shock.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.