Mohamed Fahmy is a Canadian journalist who has been imprisoned in Egypt for a year, along with his Australian colleague Peter Greste; the two, both reporters with al-Jazeera's English-language network, were sentenced by Egypt's military regime to a seven-year prison sentence on terrorism charges in what is widely regarded as part of a crackdown on journalism. This is a speech, written by Mr. Fahmy in his prison cell, that was delivered at the annual dinner for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, an anti-censorship organization, under the title "Imprisoned Canadian-Egyptian Al Jazeera Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy Opens Fire."
Ladies and gentlemen, I write this address as I imagine you elegant, well-groomed, beautiful, esteemed guests, Canada's finest intellectual community, celebrating another successful year with CJFE.
I am willing to bet there are journalists and media professionals in the room who have been threatened, physically harassed, faced death or who have been detained for doing nothing more than reporting the news and documenting the plight of others with integrity.
Our struggle as journalists is truly a global one. It's a struggle for the right to report freely, and safely. This right to freedom of expression is what true democracy entails in a civilized world.
I try in my journey as a journalist not to obsessively take on the role of an agent of democratic change usually embraced by many members of our prestigious fourth estate. But, I still live to challenge governments in their shortcomings through my craft. It's a cause not worth dying for, but in time it becomes a way of life, even behind bars.
The Arab world is moving at a turtle-like pace toward progress in the area of media reform. I have had the privilege of working for Western and Arab networks in the Arabian Gulf and Africa for over fifteen years now. I still always hear that voice in my head recurring three or four times before filing every story. "What will the government's reaction be? Which official will target me after seeing this report?"
Anyone with an ounce of sense who has followed our plight for the past year knows that we three Al Jazeera English journalists are innocent. For the sake of history's record, we are not just convicted of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, as most networks reported. We have also been framed as members of the Muslim Brotherhood – as terrorist reporters who have fabricated news using unlicensed equipment to portray the nation in a state of civil war! Yes, I know you are cringing as you hear these words just as I am writing them.
The audacity of our case highlights the degree to which journalism and politics overlap in the realm of Arab media. We are victims of a real ongoing cold war between Egypt and Qatar, the oil-rich Gulf state that gave birth to the al-Jazeera network back in 1996. This cold war is understandably under-reported in the West and remains overshadowed by the global "war on terror."
I was not allowed reading material for months into my detention. I remember giving the guards packs of cigarettes daily in exchange for a quick glance at the local newspaper. It did not take much reading to recognize the intensified, unprecedented character-assassination campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which had only been declared a terrorist organization four days before our arrest back in December, 2013. The witch hunt included anyone who associated with them, protested for their cause, or even reported their line of opposition. The Egyptian authors of the articles were the all-too-familiar journalists who had become civil servants to the state.
The uprooting of the Muslim Brotherhood spread across the Middle East when the group was declared a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada investigated the group but declined to follow in the footsteps of the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is pioneering the eradication of the group. Literally overnight, this political debacle became the core of my suffering. The tragic irony lies in the fact that I had protested among millions of Egyptians, as a private citizen, against the Muslim Brotherhood months before my arrest.
Egypt decided to teach Qatar a lesson for continuing to support the Muslim Brotherhood as Doha welcomed many wanted Islamist fugitives pursued by Egypt. Qatar had also withdrawn their much-needed $10-billion in bonds from Egyptian banks after Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was ousted five months before our arrest. In retaliation, Egypt decided to punish Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed in their score-settling with this ambitious nation, Qatar. The verdict killed two birds with one stone as it sent a chilling message to all reporters in Egypt who were not toeing the government's line.
Al-Jazeera offices in the past years had been shut down in Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and now in Egypt, amongst other nations which don't really appreciate the channel's highly promoted motto "The Opinion and the Other Opinion." Kings and rulers of these autocratic nations argued that Al Jazeera thrives on urging their citizens to revolt against them in the name of democracy. They have defended their stance, pointing out that the channel almost never covers the internal mutterings of the terrified opposition in Qatar, where political parties, trade unions and demonstrations are banned. Therefore, many countries have opted to challenge Qatar's media machine, calling it a tool for its foggy foreign policy, insisting the channel does not live up to the "Other Opinion."
I ask you to try and imagine how we three journalists felt in the cage when the al-Jazeera network lawyer abruptly quit in court in front of dozens of reporters as he yelled to the judge: "Al Jazeera has raised a $150-million international lawsuit against Egypt and against my request. Qatar is trading with the names of my clients and endangering their position in this case!"
Indeed, as millions of people and all of you in this room thankfully rallied, protested, and advocated for our release, on the other side of the globe we were left with a legal counsel that handed us to the gallows! I recently found out that most of the staff in the al-Jazeera newsroom back in Qatar were vocally appalled at the timing of this retaliatory $150-million lawsuit.
There is a book to be written about the bigotry between Egypt and Qatar that left us expendable behind bars. I intend to reveal all of that madness in my upcoming book, The Marriott Cell.
Almost a year into my detention, I am now more furious than ever that I am caught up in a web of coalitions and governments in the Middle East who can't seem to agree on who the terrorists are, which camp to bomb first and which militant group to arm next. And, if we were to invite all Arab rulers to a round-table they would hardly agree on anything except for their sworn hatred against their one enemy, the press! I felt a real sense of sadness when we were finally allowed daily newspapers and access to a radio. I could not digest the number of journalists detained and killed in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Myanmar and Iran, and those arrested as they covered the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in the United States, the so-called land of the free. Throughout my career, I don't remember the world's press witnessing worse periods in its life.
The slaying of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS [Islamic State] is what really hit my psyche hard. Sotloff had visited my home in Cairo several times before heading to Syria. I could not lend him my flak jacket because it was the property of CNN, my former employer. But, I understood he was no cowboy. I remember his genuine stare and hunger for revealing the truth. He wanted to tell the story of hundreds of thousands of Syrians eradicated by yet another sadist Arab dictator. I know his death was not in vain as the world now uproots the militants who killed him and continue to threaten the very fabric of our existence in the name of their own twisted interpretation of Islam. Those killers are the terrorists, not Peter, Fahmy or Baher! Sadly, this global "war on terror" has partially become a "war on journalists" by governments who claim we support terrorism or perform acts of espionage. It's a growing global epidemic that we cannot accept as free thinkers. I have been intrigued lately by a motto I spotted that reads: "Information is Ammunition." We must unite before more of us become just another statistic languishing behind bars.
I have had a lot of time in prison to think about the scenario unfolding on the ground now in our journalism realm. Let it be known that TV networks, newspapers and media organizations must upgrade their security protocols to accommodate the increasing threats on the field.
I call on CJFE through this rare communiqué to escalate their watchdog approach toward governments and media organizations alike.
Networks are not only responsible for providing licensed equipment, press passes, adequate security, valid broadcast licenses, and a healthy work environment for their teams. Senior network managers must also provide a security umbrella and keep an open dialogue with governments hosting their reporters in order to avoid giving these autocratic bullies any excuse to arrest or kill their foot soldiers. Journalism aside, to opt to abuse your media platform to challenge an already aggravated government only leaves your frontline reporters exposed and as easy prey – a bargaining chip.
I accepted the position of al-Jazeera Egypt Bureau Chief three months before our arrest knowing I was going against the tide. But, I had ambitions to upgrade and diversify the coverage. I took the job as a personal challenge after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood on July 3, 2013, five months before our arrest.
I sailed into the storm with a sincere crew as we beat ferocious political waves.
Unfortunately, several months later it became evident that I had inherited a sinking ship. I fired many warning flares and SOS messages as captain of this doomed ship but we kept bobbing in the ocean with no compass or a watchtower back at headquarters in Qatar to look out for our safe path.
Working the front lines and the newsrooms of the Arab media landscape is like entering a minefield. Some of us get killed. Others are jailed or seriously injured or both.
I sit writing these words while nurturing a permanent disability due to a shoulder injury exacerbated in the dingy solitary confinement cells of the "terrorist-wing" in Tora's Scorpion Prison.
As the world's turmoil increases so does the tug-of-war between governments and the press. I strongly hope that 2015 inspires governments to review regulations in a transparent manner to better protect journalists from prosecution not only in the epicentre of global turmoil in the Middle East but in the Western hemisphere.
I have been blessed to carry dual Egyptian-Canadian citizenship. This advantage has kept my feet grounded in both worlds. I must briefly clarify for the first time that I am aware of the global criticism against Canada's stance toward my position in the case. I don't like to believe that being a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen affected the level of intervention by the Canadian government. In Canada's defense, I am convinced that bull-horn diplomacy and arm-twisting diplomatic rhetoric applied by other governments would not help in my highly complicated political case. This approach may even be counterproductive when dealing with the Egyptian government and its military junta.
However, there are essential lessons the Canadian government can learn from this ongoing crisis. I am not finger-pointing but I intend to start a debate in regards to certain shortcomings in a constructive manner upon my release, to ensure Canadian citizens caught up in prisons abroad get more effective and swifter support.
Finally, I would like to sincerely thank CJFE for standing by we three Al Jazeera English journalists from day one and for highlighting the plight of many prisoners of conscience. I know CJFE keeps an eye out for hundreds of protesters and pioneers of freedom of expression unjustly silenced across the globe. Like me, these prisoners sleep and wake in their cells clinging on to the hope that they won't be forgotten.
I wish Canada a snowy Happy New Year laced with a huge "Thank You" to everyone in this hall who gave me the pleasure to escape the walls of my entrapment through my words. Merci, for letting me share this sensational celebratory feeling I can only begin to imagine.
I ask you to keep banging the #FreeAJStaff and #FreePressBattle drums as we approach the appeal date on New Year's Day. I promise to join your advocacy as a free man by continuing to bang the #FreePressBattle beat way after my release.