Egypt tightens muzzle on media, sentences Al Jazeera reporters to prison

The verdict is part of a crackdown against those who disagree with Egypt's army-backed government. Observers say the journalists are being punished for doing their job.

By , Correspondent

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    From left, Al Jazeera correspondent Peter Greste, Egypt bureau chief of Al-Jazeera Mohamed Fahmy, and producer Baher Mohammed, appear in a defendant's cage in a courtroom in Cairo, Egypt, Monday. An Egyptian court on Monday convicted three journalists and sentenced them to seven years in prison each on terrorism-related charges, bringing widespread criticism that the verdict was a blow to freedom of expression.
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Three Al Jazeera journalists were handed harsh prison sentences today in part of a far-reaching crackdown on political groups and media outlets that disagree with the army-backed government.

The government has consolidated power since taking power in a military coup last year. Last month, former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was declared the winner of a presidential election with 96 percent of the vote. And today’s verdict sent a clear message to anyone who still dares to openly oppose the government, says Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. 

"It's a warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction simply for carrying out their official duties," Mr. Lotfy says. "This feeds into a wider picture of a politicized judiciary and the use of trials to crack down on all opposition voices." 

Recommended: How much do you know about Egypt? Take this quiz.

The three journalists – Al Jazeera Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, and producer Baher Mohamed – were sentenced today to seven to ten years in prison on charges of aiding terrorists, doctoring news footage, and endangering Egypt’s national security.

Lawyers and rights groups say the evidence in today’s case was flimsy, and that this was a politicized trial intended to punish Egypt’s archrival Qatar, which owns the Al Jazeera network.

Qatar is a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and has offered sanctuary to parts of its senior leadership as they escape Egypt, where the group has been blacklisted as a terrorist organization.

Judge Mohamed Nagy, who ruled on today's case, last week sentenced several leading Brotherhood figures to death over their alleged role in violent clashes in Cairo last year.

Although Egypt’s judiciary is often accused of taking orders from above, there is no public evidence to suggest this is the case. The judiciary is deeply conservative and tends to react severely toward those it has previously seen as a threat to judges' livelihoods. The Muslim Brotherhood’s former President Mohamed Morsi clashed repeatedly with the judiciary during his time in office.

'Devastating verdict'

Mr. Fahmy, Mr. Greste, and Mr. Mohamed have been behind bars since December. Their four-month long court case has been widely viewed as a test of Egypt’s commitment to press freedom in a deeply divided, often authoritarian political context.

At today’s court session, the ruling was swift. Judge Nagy’s announcement that Greste and Fahmy would receive seven years in prison each, and Mohamed would receive ten, was met with cries of anger and confusion.

As the defendants were led away from the courtroom cage, only Fahmy stayed put, clinging to the bars as his fiancée broke down in tears. When police forcibly removed him from the cage, he shouted: “They will pay for this, I promise.”

"They ruined families today," says Fahmy's brother Adel. "This isn't a system. Everything is corrupted."

The journalists are among 20 defendants in a case that prompted an international outcry over the prosecution of journalists who say they were just doing their jobs.

Al Jazeera’s Egyptian outlet, Al Jazeera Mubashr Misr, is often accused of being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera English is editorially separate, and its Egypt coverage has long been praised internationally. 

There are currently 15 journalists in Egyptian custody, and at least five people have been arrested in the past year on suspicion of working with Al Jazeera. Those who have been released say both interrogators and judges expressed deep suspicion about their motivations to report what they did.

“This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job,” said Al Jazeera Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther in a statement. He described the journalists as prisoners of conscience.

Evidence against the defendants included footage retrieved from their hard drives showing the Islamist demonstrations which dominated parts of Cairo last summer after the overthrow of former President Morsi, a member of the since-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Police forcibly dispersed the protesters, killing hundreds.

Fahmy and Greste were arrested in late December, after a police raid on their temporary office suites in a five-star Cairo hotel. A 22-minute video clip of their arrest, set to the bombastic soundtrack of a Hollywood film, was later shown on Egyptian television. Mohamed was arrested from his home on the same day. He says police shot his dog, Gatsby.

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