Not long after three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested here in December 2013, their Qatari television network mounted one of the largest international press freedom campaigns the world has ever seen.
Given Egypt’s record of jailing journalists, the network’s campaign seemed well founded. Last June, a court sentenced the three men – Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed – to between seven and 10 years in prison on terror charges. Secretary of State John Kerry called the ruling “chilling [and] draconian.”
The verdict became a diplomatic flashpoint for Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and a symbol of the country’s authoritarian tilt. But now, Al Jazeera is in the spotlight over what current and former employees say was a cavalier attitude about their safety amid political tensions between Egypt and Qatar, whose royal family bankrolls the network. While positioning itself as a defender of press freedom, Al Jazeera appeared to put greater stock in smearing Egypt’s reputation, they say.
Among these critics is Mr. Fahmy. Now released on bail, he accuses his employers of “epic negligence.” Standing outside the decrepit prison complex where the court convened Monday, Fahmy, a Canadian, said he was “very angry” at Al Jazeera’s failure to protect its staff when it mattered most. He and Mr. Mohamed, an Egyptian, were freed on bail on Feb. 12 pending a retrial; Mr. Greste was released from jail and deported to his native Australia on Feb. 1.
“I’ve seen enough negligence now to even consider their actions as being in my favor,” Fahmy said.
The allegations include ignoring warnings from staff in Egypt and refusing to temper the behavior of the network’s Arabic language stations in the months leading up to the journalists’ arrest. Al Jazeera later filed a lawsuit against Egypt, heightening bilateral tensions, which appeared to scotch any chance of backdoor diplomacy to secure the reporters’ pretrial release.
The Al Jazeera network strenuously denies that it put its staff at risk and, speaking to Sky News this week, a spokesman attributed Fahmy’s comments to the “strain and literal or effective duress under which he may be speaking.”
Al Jazeera Arabic sided with Brotherhood
In the eyes of Egypt’s government and others in the region, Al Jazeera is no ordinary media outlet. Many within the political and security establishment see it as a proxy for Qatar’s pro-Islamist political agenda.
This applies mostly to the network’s Arabic programming; its English-language news channel is seen as more impartial. The various services are editorially independent, although all are headquartered in Doha.
As the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 unfolded, Al Jazeera led the media charge, running wall-to-wall footage of protests as they spread across the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and later, Benghazi.
In the summer of 2013, Mr. Sisi, then Army chief, led the overthrow of president and staunch Qatari ally Mohamed Morsi. Al Jazeera’s Arabic channels sided squarely with the deposed leader’s Muslim Brotherhood, much to the chagrin of Sisi’s new administration.
For Al Jazeera staff in Egypt, the mood turned sour. Ordinary Egyptians began asking foreign journalists if they were from Al Jazeera, without making any distinction between the network’s different arms.
“All of a sudden, these channels that exist in parallel spheres found each other married to one another at a critical moment in time,” says Adel Iskander, the co-author of a book on the network, “Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism” and a communications expert at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“The Al Jazeera English station became guilty by association.”
According to Fahmy, and former staff members who spoke to the Monitor on condition of anonymity, Al Jazeera overlooked a host of warning signs over the increasingly tenuous position of its Cairo operations.
Immediately after Mr. Morsi’s overthrow, the network complained when the Egyptian government temporarily jammed the signal of its Egyptian affiliate. But worse was to follow: In August 2013, police arrested a different three-man Al Jazeera English team and later shuttered their office, confiscating equipment and accusing the then-bureau chief of “running an unlicensed channel and using unlicensed equipment."
Al Jazeera English's staff were then moved to temporary office space in a five-star hotel that would later become notorious as the site of their arrest. The decision left Cairo-based staff concerned, especially as the channel was operating in the Egyptian capital without a proper license.
Fahmy e-mailed bosses in Doha on Sept. 7, his second day in the job, asking for reassurance over the channel's legal status in Egypt and offering to lay out his concerns in full.
Afaf Saoudi, AJE’s acting executive producer for Middle East & North Africa, replied, “I appreciate your concern about the legal issue, but Doha management will deal with it from here.”
Mr. Iskander agrees that the network could have paid greater attention to their journalists’ activities in Egypt. “Think of it like sending someone into a war zone,” he says. “Not all the necessary precautions were taken to allow them to be safe.”
Fanning the flames
Fahmy later complained to Salah Neg, director of news at Al Jazeera English, when Al Jazeera Egypt Live, an Arabic channel devoted solely to Egypt news, started rebroadcasting original content from the English-language station. Despite promises that the matter would be dealt with, rebroadcasts continued into December.
The recycled news footage was used as evidence against the Al Jazeera trio at trial as apparent proof that the men had been working for the pro-Brotherhood Egyptian channel, and were therefore agents of the Islamist movement.
Al Jazeera staff and analysts say the network’s mixed response to their journalists’ arrests further fanned the flames of their predicament.
The English language channel consistently featured the case on their newscasts, as did other major news organizations like the BBC, for whom Greste previously worked. They also took out full-page advertisements in newspapers such as The New York Times and the Guardian. It also paid for the jailed men’s family members to travel to Egypt for the their trial.
Fahmy says, however, that the channel spent more money on publicity than it did on his legal fees. He chose to employ a different lawyer, after one appointed by the channel walked out halfway through proceedings, and to date, Al Jazeera has not contributed a substantial portion of the new lawyer's fees.
Network seeks compensation from Egypt
At the same time, 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. It hired a prominent London law firm with a reputation for aggressive publicity campaigns on behalf of its clients.
“That signaled that the gloves were off – the bosses had made their move,” says one staff member from the English language station, who spoke to the Monitor on condition of anonymity. “It was a difficult time internally – a lot of us didn’t understand why this would happen when our boys were still in prison.”
Al Jazeera staff say they wish network bosses had taken the three journalists' early warnings more seriously, and that they had not chosen to launch an antagonistic lawsuit while the men were in jail.
The Al Jazeera network has defended its record. “We take the safety of our journalists more seriously than anything else,” a spokesman told Sky News on Monday. “Decisions are always taken in consultation with our in-country teams.”
But standing outside the court complex, Fahmy sounded unconvinced. “Al Jazeera's epic negligence gave more firepower for our convictions,” he said.