Egypt finally frees Al Jazeera journalists, 98 others

Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were jailed during Egyptian President Sisi’s ongoing crackdown on dissent, but questions linger about whether Al Jazeera put staff in harm’s way.

Amr Nabil/AP/File
In this June 4, 2015, file photo, Canadian Al Jazeera English journalist Mohammed Fahmy, left, and his Egyptian colleague Baher Mohammed listen in a courtroom in Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi formally pardoned 100 prisoners on Wednesday, including two Al Jazeera English-language journalists, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, whose trial was widely considered spurious and politically-motivated. A third Al Jazeera reporter, Australian Peter Greste, was deported in February and has returned to Australia.

The trio was first arrested in 2013 and sentenced to seven to 10 years’ imprisonment, according to The Christian Science Monitor. But the case was retried in August after Egypt’s Court of Cassation ruled that the defendants’ rights had been violated, leading to a revised three-year sentence.

In August 2013, Egyptian police raided an Al Jazeera office near Tahrir Square, iconic as a center of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and protests throughout now-imprisoned, democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi’s one-year rule. Concerned about their safety, Fahmy, Mohamed, and Greste relocated to a hotel office, where they were nevertheless arrested in December 2013 and charged with airing false and harmful information, according to The Associated Press. Their charges then grew to accuse the reporters of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood movement, of which Morsi was a member, whose followers have faced severe repercussions after Sisi’s coup d’etat.

Sisi’s government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and has killed more than 1,400 in a crackdown that has expanded to sweep out political opponents and activists across the spectrum; dozens more, including Morsi himself, have been sentenced to death. According to Amnesty International, which has decried the regime’s atmosphere of “all-out repression,” more than 41,000 have been arrested.

As Matt Schiavenza notes for the Atlantic,

traditionally, international journalists have avoided punishment in Egypt, [despite its being] a country with virtually no history of press freedom. But Al Jazeera aroused al-Sisi’s ire with its critical coverage of the former general’s coup against Morsi.

In June, amid an upswing in violence, a new anti-terrorism law was created which tightens restrictions on the press: The law heavily fines reporters whose accounts of terrorist activity differ from the government’s version, while forgiving violence used to enforce it.

Giles Trendle, Al Jazeera English’s acting managing director, called the trial of the Al Jazeera journalists “Kafka-esque” for its “ludicrous, groundless charges,” many delays, and lack of evidence. Framing its reporters’ arrest as a case of press freedom versus political theater, Al Jazeera launched a PR campaign to free them, publishing full-page newspaper advertisements in both the United States and Britain.

Mr. Fahmy, however, says that Al Jazeera may be just as much to blame for his arrest, and has sued his former employer for $100 million for negligence, claims the network dismisses. 

"They don't seem to understand that they cannot continue to challenge the sovereignty of governments, put the story ahead of the safety of their employees, and assume that they will continue to get away with it,” Fahmy has said.

Although Al Jazeera’s English broadcasting is considered more neutral, its Arabic channel often leans towards the pro-Morsi views of the royal family in Qatar, which funds the network. According to The Christian Science Monitor, Fahmy accuses Al Jazeera of ignoring his multiple complaints that the Arabic channel’s coverage would endanger its English-language channel employees. 

Meanwhile, the Monitor reports, “the network also launched a
 $150 million compensation claim against the Egyptian government, 
arguing that its crackdown on the network had violated a 1999 
investment agreement between Egypt and Qatar,” a move that some feel may have undermined the network's efforts to free its journalists.

Summing up the trial of the Al Jazeera journalists, Fahmy’s lawyer told the Monitor, “There has been no evidence of any crime having been committed, unless being a journalist is itself a crime in Egypt.” Reporters without Borders ranks Egypt 158th out of 180 countries in its annual World Press Freedom Index. 

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