Verdict in Al Jazeera trial shows regime’s contempt for press freedom in Egypt

Freedom of speech on trial: the Al Jazeera Three. EPA/Khaled Elfiqi

Three Al Jazeera English journalists have been convicted in the Cairo Criminal Court of spreading false news, threatening national security and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood – previously Egypt’s first democratically elected government now deemed a terrorist organisation.

The trial judge, Mohamed Nagy, handed Australian journalist, Peter Greste, and his Egyptian-Canadian colleague, Mohamad Fadel Fahmy, seven-year sentences in a maximum security prison. Egyptian Al Jazeera journalist Baher Mohamad was given an additional three years for being in possession of a spent bullet casing he picked up.

The “Al Jazeera Three” were tried with 20 other defendants – some of whom were students thought to be members of the Brotherhood – and other foreign correspondents, including the Dutch journalist Rena Netjes and British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, who were all tried in absentia and received ten-year sentences.

The international community has expressed its shock and outrage. Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, remarked on the appalling severity of the verdict while in the UK, both foreign minister, William Hague, and the prime minister, David Cameron, said they were “appalled” by the verdict. The EU has said it is “extremely concerned” and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, called the verdict “chilling and draconian”. Several Western countries have summoned Egyptian ambassadors. Amnesty International’s director, Steve Crawshaw, called the sentence “Outrageous … [an] absolute affront to justice.”

No credible evidence

The prosecution lacked any credible evidence in the case, producing an array of elements as evidentiary support ranging from the dubious to the surreal, including the playing of inaudible recordings in court, showing clips from networks other than Al Jazeera, and even a pop video by Gotye, an Australian singer.

Judge Mohammed Nagui: a lack of due process. EPA/Khaled Elfiqi

These judgments are part of the new Egyptian government’s strategy to marginalise the influence of Qatar at the behest of the new Egyptian regime’s Saudi allies. Qatar, where Al Jazeera is headquartered, supports the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the sentences also serve as a stark reminder of the intimidation experienced by journalists on the ground – whether foreign or Egyptian – and the dismal environment in which political dissent and opposition navigate at great personal risk. The judiciary has in recent months sentenced more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters to death, including, just last week, Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide, Mohamad Badie, and at least 182 of the organisation’s supporters.

No due process

The verdicts will still go through an appeals process, but given they came the day after Kerry’s personal meeting with Egypt’s recently elected president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian regime seems to have been callously heedless of guaranteeing due process in the trial.

Sisi has led a crackdown on any political dissent since Mohamad Morsi’s ousting by the military in July 2013. Islamists and Brotherhood supporters, prominent human rights advocates and protestors have all come under attack with an estimated 41,000 arrested since the military takeover. The al Jazeera verdicts surely highlight the reality of the current state of media freedom in Egypt and the grim continuation of the regime’s crackdown.

Article 70 of Egypt’s new constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, prior to being elected Egypt’s president, Sisi made a statement to the editors of the nation’s primary newspapers that freedom of the press should be balanced with national security. Al Jazeera, in particular, has come under attack by the Egyptian regime for its supposed sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood. This trial is a clear message that opposition voices, including journalists, may also fall victim to the state’s arbitrary security measures. Despite scant evidence, the judiciary appears all too willing to issue politically useful but legally nonsensical verdicts at the expense of any semblance of human rights or the rule of law.

These verdicts send a chilling message to all journalists, and particularly to Egyptian journalists trying to do their job, who cannot rely on the attention of the international media or the support of foreign governments.

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