The plight of journalists and activists in Egypt today - including the Al Jazeera reporters currently in detention on trumped up claims of abetting terrorism and "spreading false news" - is no laughing matter.
But it's hard not to laugh at a videotape of the arrest and interrogation of Australian Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy that was released on Egypt's Tahrir TV on Sunday night. At least before you cry.
The footage provided to the television station by one of the state security agents involved was filmed at the Cairo hotel where many of Al Jazeera's reporters work, hence the government's reference to their operation as the "Marriott terror cell." As befits this grandiose slander to refer to a bunch of reporters just doing their jobs, Tahrir TV overlaid the cartoonishly ominous and bombastic soundtrack from the movie "Thor: The Dark World," which is about a Norse god trying to save the world from evil elves.
As cymbals crash and strings provide a thrumming background of anxiety, the camera pans over the reporters' tools of terror: Laptops, a camera, walkie talkies, a coffee table book with pictures from Egypt's 2011 uprising, and (eek!) a tangle of ethernet cable.
The almost 22-minute clip (included below) also includes the informal interrogation conducted on site of Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Greste before it shows them being loaded into a security van and carted away.
The government's release of the clip justifiably infuriated Al Jazeera (and employees of many other news organizations working in Egypt). The network said in a statement "the leak and dramatisation of the footage betrays an attempt to demonize the journalists, and is the latest incident of incitement against the network."
"If this video was deliberately leaked, it violates basic standards of justice. If it came out by mistake, the professionalism of the prosecution process is called into question," Salah Negm, director of news for Al Jazeera English, said in the statement. "The video ridiculously sets images of our crew’s laptops, cameras and mobile phones against dramatic music. People who look beyond the propaganda though will see the video shows what we have been saying all along – that our crew were journalists doing their job."
I don't know Fahmy, but I have many friends and acquaintances who do, and describe him as professional, hardworking, and passionate. I spent a delightful evening with Greste years ago, when he he told me the story of an orphaned baby hippo and a giant land tortoise that became inseparable after his wife helped rescue in Kenya after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (Greste and his wife later collaborated on children's book about the pair).
That they - and many others - are rotting in an Egyptian jail on trumped up charges is sickening, and a worrying sign for Egyptian journalists and activists, who are more vulnerable than those who hold foreign passports. And the guilt by association approach of the Egyptian authorities is reaching new heights.
Dutch reporter Rena Netjes was able to leave Egypt today with the assistance of her embassy ahead of charges that she too has something to do with terrorists. On Twitter, Ms. Netjes wrote that the government was targeting her because she met with Fahmy at the Marriot on Dec. 14 to ask him about the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula.
Another measure of how dark Egypt's so-called revolution has turned is Tahrir TV itself. It was founded just days before Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in Feb. 2011 as a test of the promise of the Egyptian uprising - that Egypt was becoming a freer and more open society. One of the founders was crusading journalist Ibrahim Eissa, who was targeted for prosecution by the authorities on multiple occasions during Mr. Mubarak's last decade in power.
But by February 2012 Mr. Eissa had cut all ties with the channel - shortly after it was taken over by a politically connected Egyptian businessman. Since then it's become something of a mouthpiece for the Egyptian government - which has been led by the military since the July coup against elected President Mohamed Morsi.