Reflections on the prosecution of Al Jazeera journalists

Samuel Fearnley, Kettle Mag, Al Jazeera English Newsdesk, Prosecution of Al Jazeera Journalists
Written by Sam Fearnley

Press freedom is a concept that is often subtle and difficult to define as well as observe. In the west, we might take for granted our right to circulate opinions in print, without censorship of the government as western media has the ability to publish almost anything and everything they can get a journalist to write, no matter how scandalous. 

Despite this, breaches in press freedom are fairly widespread, and can occur in developing, emerging and developed countries.

The prosecution of three Al Jazeera journalists on 29th August this year has been highlighted by many as one of these breaches. 

Editorial independence

Al Jazeera is a global media organisation, owned by the Qatari government. Many officials working for Al Jazeera claim that they are editorially independent from the government, though many doubt this assertion.

This particular case of three Al Jazeera journalists began on the 29th December 2013, when all three were arrested by the Egyptian authorities, after a raid at an Egyptian hotel used by the Al Jazeera network. The journalists were charged with being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt has deemed a terrorist group. 

Six months later, on the 23rd of June 2014, the three were jailed for between seven and ten years. In January 2015, Egypt’s court of cassation over-ruled these convictions, claiming that the rights of the defendants had been violated. The retrial took place in recent court proceedings.

The trial

This latest trial did not go as the journalists would have hoped. Despite an enormous lack of evidence supporting the government’s position that the Al Jazeera employees were a threat to national security, the judge sentenced all three to three years in prison. An Egytpian court ruled the journalists had spread “false news” and biased coverage; opinions which have been disputed by campaigners of the freedom of the press. 

Peter Greste, an Australian national, was deported to Australia in February and so was tried in absentia, and will avoid the three-year prison sentance he was given. Mohammed Fahmy, a canadian journalist, and Baher Mohamed, were taken straight back into police custody after the trial. They will face three and three and a half years in prison respectively. Baher Mohamed was given the extra six months for possession of a single bullet.

Amal Clooney, who was defending Mr Fahmy, said,

The verdict today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt, it sends a message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news.

She will push for Mr Fahmy, who has relinquished his Egyptian citizenship, to be instead deported to Canada. The government of Canada is calling for his deportation too, with Lynne Yelich, the Canadian Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular), releasing a statement:

“The government of Canada continues to call on the Egyptian government to use all tools at its disposal to resolve Mr Fahmy’s case and allow his immediate return to Canada,” it said in a statement.

An alternative route to free the journalists would be to obtain a pardon from the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He has previously expressed regret in the way that this prolonged trial has affected the international reputation of Egypt.

The lack of evidence supporting the government’s position in this case is worrying. It highlights the power that governments still have, and can use, to curtail the rights of journalists. In my opinion, those rights must continue to be protected wherever possible.

Do you agree? How far has the freedom of the press been breached in this case, or do you think the government should be able to monitor what journalists write on? Leave your opinions in the comments below!