Free all journalists in Egypt

There is a campaign underway to encourage solidarity with imprisioned journalists in Egypt

H.A. Hellyer
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Early last week, the first hearing for the apparently terrorist “Marriott Cell” in Cairo was heard. If that sounds bizarre to you, it ought to. Two journalists, an Egyptian-Canadian dual national called Mohammad Fadel Fahmy, and an Australian national, Peter Greste, who works with Al-Jazeera English, were detained from that hotel. They are, it “seems,” in league with terrorists. In other news, it also “seems” that the moon is made of Swiss cheese. Regardless, the case raises a few points of some importance.

The case was adjourned till March 5, at which point, journalists in Egypt and around the world continue to hope the case will be dismissed. Or at least, the journalists will be allowed release on bail – because, frankly, is any journalist offense worth jail time anyway? Al-Jazeera has already admitted that the accreditation documents were not fully in order for these journalists – fine. Is that an offense that deserves detainment while further investigation continues? How, precisely, did the case go from that to one that relates to charges of terrorism and so forth? Even an exceedingly pro-government Egyptian TV presenter, Lamis Hadidi, raised that point – if she, who cannot exactly be accused of being pro-Al-Jazeera, can see something wrong with this picture, surely everyone ought to be able to as well?


Indeed, many do see something wrong with the picture – including within the Egyptian government. The case is embarrassing Egypt tremendously internationally – which may explain why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared to facilitate the quick departure of a Dutch journalist who was put on the same charge sheet as these Al-Jazeera journalists. Her sole contact, it seems, with them was a single meeting in December, where she met with Fahmy to discuss Sinai, as he is an expert on the peninsula. Seems something of a stretch to get to anything relating to terrorism from that, but I digress.

If regulations have been broken in some way, then fines can be levied after appropriate investigations. If media stations breach an official media code of ethics that demands due impartiality, then they can be reprimanded, or taken off the air until it is shown they have taken appropriate measures. If programs have broken the law, then a media ombudsman can censure them, for example. But detention? Imprisonment? (Incidentally – one suspects that if this kind of code were implemented across the board in Egypt, any such ombudsman might be working, ahem, overtime).

Encouraging solidarity

There is a campaign underway to encourage solidarity with the journalists – within the country, and abroad. It is admirable, and inspiring to see members of the journalistic profession from across the world stand by others of their vocation who have been detained, particularly in conditions such as what has been reported. Some of the detained journalists were being held in the same quarters as radical militants, for example – they also complained of being denied appropriate medical attention as well as the minimum of living necessities.

It is admirable, and inspiring, to see members of the journalistic profession from across the world stand by others of their vocation

H.A. Hellyer

The campaign does suffer from two critical weaknesses. The first is that the international campaign tends to focus on Peter Greste – to the exclusion of others. One needn’t read bad intentions into that – but non-Egyptian Greste has become for far too many the face of this campaign, rather than all of those who are detained. The fear is that, should Greste be released, as the international journalist, the campaign’s impetus might dramatically decrease. Moreover, the international campaign tends to focus on the Al-Jazeera journalists, although most of those facing charges are not Al-Jazeera staff members. The campaign needs focus on ensuring that all journalists can do their jobs without fearing detention or imprisonment – regardless of nationality, and regardless of what station they work for. (Incidentally, international correspondents in Egypt tend to appreciate this point very well – and have consistently drawn attention to all of those detained.)

Two steps back

Secondly, with regards to al-Jazeera in particular – the station, unfortunately, shoots the campaign in the foot every time it allows sectarianism or incitement to be shown on its channels without challenge. This rarely happens on the English station, but it does take place far more commonly on the Arabic channels – even from hosts. Just as a very recent example: in response to the news that a political party in Egypt recently elected a Christian as its head, a host from Al-Jazeera Mubashir Masr, Alaa Sadek, announced this was evidence of a “conspiracy” and “war” against Islam. This kind of discourse should not be allowed from guests on a TV show without incredible challenge from the host – when it comes from the host itself, it is despicable, and ought to be reprimanded by the station’s management, publicly. This type of unacceptable conduct can never be deemed to be acceptable – whether journalists are detained or not. But every time any part of the Al-Jazeera network allows such reprehensible behaviour, it will, invariably damage this solidarity campaign – and the journalists behind bars will, even though they shouldn’t, pay the price.

One ought to be clear about this case. No journalist, anywhere, ought to expect to be detained and imprisoned as a result of doing their jobs. Period: no if’s or but’s. As two of the journalists said themselves: journalism is not terrorism. It never will be – and all journalists unjustly detained ought to be able to say that openly, freely and with their families. Today.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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