Deborah Kelly, a former program editor with Al Jazeera, is a senior lecturer with the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism at Nottingham Trent University.
Monday was a dark day for media freedom. Three journalists who worked for the Al Jazeera network – Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed – were jailed by an Egyptian court.
Mr. Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian, and Mr. Greste, an Australian, were sentenced to seven years each. Mr. Mohamed, an Egyptian, received a 10-year sentence. Several other people received sentences in absentia. Their crime, in essence, was believing in freedom of the media.
As a program editor who has worked at Al Jazeera, I find it unbelievable that colleagues who risked their lives to report from some of the most dangerous parts of the globe, highlighting the plight of the world’s most vulnerable people, have been locked up for doing their jobs.
Before the trial, Mr. Greste was quoted as saying that the thought of not being acquitted was “terrifying.”
As a Nairobi-based correspondent for Al Jazeera, he was a fine journalist and a producer’s dream – always leading the story, searching out the facts and telling personal tales about the people who matter. He is a dedicated correspondent with a passion for wildlife photography. His pictures have illustrated three books that have enchanted children and their parents.
When he and his colleagues were arrested in Cairo, a sense of unreality pervaded the newsroom at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha. Surely they would be out within days? After all, they had merely been reporting, and had done nothing wrong. But as days stretched to weeks, staff began to realize the seriousness of their plight.
Al Jazeera is headquartered in and is funded by Qatar, whose government has been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s new President, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has vowed to wipe out the organization.
The Egyptian prosecution claimed that the Al Jazeera journalists aided the Brotherhood and produced false news reports on the situation in Egypt – charges with no basis in reality, and strenuously denied by the journalists. The Brotherhood was listed as a “terrorist” organization shortly before they were arrested.
So, is this their real crime? That they are guilty by association? And if so, aren’t we all guilty, as journalists, of some kind of association?
Thirty years ago this month, another group of journalists were targeted because of their alleged association with a government. Reporters working for the British Broadcasting Corp. were accused of bias by striking British miners fighting against pit closures imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.
The miners argued that the BBC must be promoting the government’s views since it was government funded. (It wasn’t – the corporation is funded by television licence fees paid by viewers.) The recriminations and arguments from that episode continue to this day – but that debate is being conducted in a public forum, in the media, not from behind bars.
Leaders from around the world, including Canada, have expressed concern about the sentences. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he telephoned Egypt’s Foreign Minister to register “serious displeasure.” And Lynne Yelich, Canada’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said Ottawa was “very disappointed” and concerned that the judicial process that led to the verdict was inconsistent with Egypt’s democratic aspirations.
But diplomacy has already proved fruitless in this case.
The imprisoned men will appeal, but their families have little faith in the Egyptian judicial system, which Mr. Fahmy’s brother Adel has described as “corrupt.”
So Mr. Fahmy, Mr. Greste and Mr. Mohamed face years away from friends, family and jobs they are passionate about.
And what of the next generation of journalists who are just graduating, full of the same drive, determination and idealism of the Al Jazeera colleagues? Their plight cannot be allowed to deter them from pursuing what they believe is right, to hold governments to account, to speak up for the vulnerable and the dispossessed, and to fight for freedom of the media.