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Egypt, Qatar and the battle over Al Jazeera that has landed three journalists in jail

Journalism is not a crime: the Al Jazeera three. EPA/Khaled Elfiqi

The guilty verdict for three Al Jazeera journalists, who have been handed sentences of between seven and ten years for “aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news” has been widely condemned as a blow against press freedom in the region. The move is being seen as the action of a repressive government hell bent on stifling all dissent.

Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed were arrested in Cairo last December as they covered the turmoil that followed the army’s removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July.

Once praised for providing an alternative voice to Western networks, Al Jazeera is now regarded by many Egyptians as the mouthpiece, not just of the Muslim Brotherhood, officially labelled a terrorist group, but also of the enemy of Egypt’s military rulers, Qatar.

After the toppling of Morsi’s rule, the offices of Al Jazeera and the Egyptian media outlets linked to Islamic movements were shut down and Al Jazeera’s journalists in Doha were banned from entering Egypt.

The fallout and diplomatic rift between Egypt and Qatar has escalated in the media domain and culminated in the long prison sentences handed down to the three journalists, who were working for Al Jazeera English. The channel had been celebrated for its pivotal role during the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

But the tension between Egypt and Qatar over Al Jazeera’s coverage has been brewing for some time. During its extensive coverage of the Gaza conflict in 2009, the channel criticised the Egyptian government for reluctance to open its border with Gaza Strip and allow humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Al Jazeera then gave a platform to Arab critics to accuse then president Hosni Mubarak of complicity with Israel. In response, Egyptian state and independent television channels waged a wave of criticism against al Jazeera accusing it of engaging in a media war against Egypt. Mubarak, did not conceal his view of Qatar and Al Jazeera. When Morsi was elected in 2012, Qatar had supported him and the Muslim Brotherhood. But the win damaged Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which had been fervent supporters of Mubarak.

Rift deepens

Since the end of Morsi’s rule in July 2013, the rift between Egypt and Qatar has deepened. Many journalists condemned Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian affairs.

Journalists affiliated with the station’s Egyptian outlet, Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr (Egypt Live), resigned over what they called prejudiced coverage. Fatima Nabeel, one of the journalists who resigned, said she felt the channel was partisan in favour of political Islam and that “selectivity was excercised in broadcasting”.

Then, journalists discovered to be working for al Jazeera faced persecution. In May, Rasha al Sayyed Abdo, a female freelance journalist, was arrested in Port Said for working with Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr.

In fact, Al Jazeera has long been accused by some of serving the Islamists’ agenda since its inception in mid-1990s. The channel was accused of forging links with al-Qaeda. It had journalists imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay and put under house arrest.

The channel was also seen by critics as a platform for controversial Islamic clerics such as Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of the former leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was stripped of his Egyptian citizenship in the 1970s, forcing him to take Qatar as his new home. Qatar was also the refuge of the political leadership of Hamas, and it hosted the Taliban’s first official overseas office in 2013. For many Egyptian commentators, Qatar’s paradox is that it accommodates controversial Islamists while hosting one of the biggest US military bases in the region.

The Egyptian veteran journalist Adel Hammouda devotes a weekly programme on the independent television Annahar to scrutinise Qatar arguing that it possibly has a desire to take a leading role in the region and using Al Jazeera as a PR tool. Hammouda alleged that the former emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, possibly suffered from “size complex” and he therefore supported the US agenda in dividing the Arab countries into tiny states like Qatar.

While the sentencing of Al Jazeera’s journalists has been condemned by western media organisations as well as governments, Egyptian persecutors demanded the maximum penalty for all journalists regarded as serving as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood. Yehia al Gamal, former deputy Prime Minister in 2011, told al Watan newspaper when the trial began that he supported the maximum penalty for the journalists while accusing Al Jazeera of implementing a US-led agenda. The trial and verdict come at a time when Egyptian officials and commentators call for Egypt to end its dependency on the US – and the West.

Amid reports regarding insufficient evidence and an inadequate trial, there may still be a slight chance for the verdict to be overturned on appeal. Even so, the case still marks one of the biggest challenges for the exercise of freedom of speech in Egypt since the end of the Brotherhood’s rule.

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