On trial in Egypt, Al Jazeera journalists struggle to cut through the noise

Three Al Jazeera journalists arrested in December made their first court appearance today. They are accused by authorities of belonging to a terrorist organization – the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jihan Nasr/El Shorouk newspaper/AP
Journalists wait outside court adjacent to Tora prison as 20 Al Jazeera journalists are on trial accused of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and also for aiding it in Cairo, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.

Three Al Jazeera journalists appeared in a Cairo court on Thursday, taking advantage of repeated recesses to shout messages to reporters covering their first appearance in almost two months.

It was chaotic inside the dusty courtroom as the defendants vied to be heard. "They didn't inform us about the trial," came one shout. "Tell my family that I love them," came another.

Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, was arrested in a sundown raid on the channel's temporary office in late December, along with Australian reporter Peter Greste, and freelance producer Baher Mohamed. A macabre 22-minute video of their arrest from suites in a five-star Cairo hotel, set to the music of a Hollywood blockbuster, was later shown on Egyptian television.

They and 16 other defendants are accused of belonging to or assisting a terrorist organization – in this case, the Muslim Brotherhood, recently designated as a terrorist group – as well as broadcasting "false news" and working without the correct accreditation. They deny the charges other than those relating to their paperwork, arguing that they are being prosecuted for simply doing their job in a difficult political climate.

Press freedom has been increasingly restricted in Egypt since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a July 3 military coup. The Qatari-owned Al Jazeera network is perceived as sympathetic to Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the government is seeking to drive out of politics entirely. Qatar was a key ally of Mr. Morsi's government, and now plays host to a number of senior Muslim Brotherhood figures. 

Although Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel is frequently accused of bias and incitement, the detained journalists work for Al Jazeera English, an editorially separate outlet.

The judge named 20 defendants, but only eight appeared in court. Of those, only three were employees of the network. 

Mr. Fahmy, who endured weeks in solitary confinement before being moved into a cell with his colleagues in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, said their physical conditions are bearable, but that the psychological trials were “very difficult.”

He called on the governments of Canada and Australia to add their voices to a growing chorus of international condemnation over their imprisonment. Fahmy is a Canadian-Egyptian citizen.

Australian prime minister Tony Abbot alluded to their fate on Thursday, telling journalists in Sydney that “a free press is not compatible with harassing journalists going about their ordinary business.” He declined to mention the Al Jazeera case.

Defendants' families endured a four-hour wait in the baking sun as the start of Thursday’s court session, held inside a police compound attached to the prison, was repeatedly delayed. The media circus in the outer courtyard contrasted sharply with the solemn mood on the other side of the ramparts, where families waited to visit imprisoned relatives.

Fahmy’s fiancee said that he remained psychologically strong, despite his spell of solitary confinement with an untreated broken shoulder. "He always tells me that they will remain free, even while they are behind bars," she says. "Journalists are not terrorists – the evidence linking him to the Muslim Brotherhood comes because he has Muslim Brotherhood contacts on his phone, like all reporters in Egypt."

The other five defendants did not get to the chance to speak in front of the judge, but used recesses to tell reporters about the specifics of their case. They denied links with Al Jazeera, and alleged that they had been tortured in custody. The five – whose connection to the Al Jazeera reporters remains unclear – included Anas Beltagy, the son of senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Beltagy.

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