Jillian Slutzker is an associate in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
In Egypt, interviewing opposition activists or merely possessing a video camera and editing software can land you in prison. These are the central pieces of evidence prosecutors in Cairo have used to saddle the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and his codefendants with terrorism charges and a possible 15-year prison sentence. Mr. Fahmy has now been behind bars for 100 days.
By prosecuting Mr. Fahmy and his colleagues, apparently for doing nothing more than speaking to sources and reporting a news story, Egypt has put free expression itself on trial. As Mr. Fahmy’s defense lawyer said addressing a Cairo court on March 24, “Is it crime to ask someone for his opinion, and then to transmit it?”
Mohamed Fahmy moved to Canada with his family in 1991 and graduated from university in Vancouver. He is an award-winning journalist who has worked for CNN, the BBC, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He joined Al Jazeera English as their Cairo bureau chief in September.
Adel Fahmy, his brother, described him recently as “a great source of positive energy to everyone around him,” adding that he had been planning his wedding for this month. But rather than preparing for his wedding, Mr. Fahmy is preparing to face a possible more than a decade in prison.
Authorities arrested Mr. Fahmy and three of his colleagues on December 29 in the Cairo hotel suite where they had been working. The charges include editing video footage to “give the appearance that Egypt is in a civil war,” operating broadcast equipment without a license, membership in a terrorist organization, and possession of material that promotes the goals of a terrorist organization.
If the prosecutors have evidence that the journalists belong to a terrorist organization, they have yet to produce it in court. It would not be the first time the prosecution filed this charge without producing credible evidence, in an apparent attempt to stifle dissent and intimidate reporters who consider it their job to get all points of view, including those of Muslim Brotherhood members.
In all four court sessions so far, when Mr. Fahmy’s lawyers have asked government investigators to produce evidence that the Al Jazeera journalists harmed national security or doctored footage, the prosecution failed to produce a single example.
The Egyptian government alleges that Al Jazeera’s networks are biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in their coverage of Egypt. Al Jazeera is hardly the first news network to be accused of bias.
In a letter to Mr. Fahmy’s family, the Interim Egyptian president, Adly Mansour, wrote that he would ensure that Mr. Fahmy is afforded his full legal rights. But Mr. Mansour’s Egypt has hardly been a model for due process. On March 24, an Egyptian court sentenced to death 529 people, Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, after a trial that lacked any semblance of due process and concluded in under an hour.
Mr. Fahmy has been denied bail and alleges that authorities have until recently denied him treatment for a broken shoulder he suffered several months ago, which has left his arm permanently disabled.
How can one expect due process in this atmosphere of mass trials, summary judgments, and guilt by association? It is no wonder that Egypt is increasingly one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry has been conducting quiet diplomacy with its Egyptian counterparts over Mr. Fahmy, urging due process and humane treatment.
But Canada needs to step up its efforts. On March 27, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott called President Mansour to appeal directly for the release of Peter Greste, an Australian Al Jazeera journalist detained with Mr. Fahmy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United States, among others, have also weighed in with Egypt.
With Mr. Fahmy due in court again on April 10, Prime Minister Harper needs to call for Egypt to drop all charges that relate to journalists simply doing their job. Amid Egypt’s assault on the media and on freedom of expression, Canada should evaluate all its tools to end the prosecution of one of its citizens simply for being a journalist.