By Aliza Goldberg and Keshar Patel
Freedom of expression received a devastating blow on June 23, when three journalists in Egypt were sentenced to prison for conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization deemed by authorities as an alleged terrorist group. The three men worked for Al Jazeera and have been detained for 177 days as they awaited trial, following their arrest in December.
Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy received seven-year sentences. Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed was handed a 10-year prison sentence due to “ammunition” found on his person: a used shell kept as a souvenir.
The three men have been charged with manipulating footage to tarnish the Egyptian image and with conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood. Greste's latest articles for Al Jazeera covered conflicts in South Sudan and Kenya. Fahmy recorded video coverage of the Cairo protests. As a producer, Mohamed never wrote for Al Jazeera.
"These convictions are shocking, and an extremely disturbing sign for the future of the Egyptian press," said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator of the international human rights organization Committee to Protect Journalists. "Authorities must release the journalists immediately and overturn the verdict on appeal."
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop condemns Egypt's court decision, reminding Egypt that the path to democracy requires justice and freedom of press. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has called to speak with the Egyptian ambassador to discuss the trial procedure and evidence used. Prime Minister David Cameron is “appalled;” while Sherif Mansour Committee to Protect Journalists Middle East and North Africa coordinator states, “These convictions are shocking, and an extremely disturbing sign for the future of the Egyptian press,” emphasizing the immediate release of the journalists.
Amnesty International, among other critics, claim the three journalists are pawns in a geopolitical dispute between Qatar and Egypt. Qatar funds Al Jazeera. During the ousting of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Egypt government officials perceived Al Jazeera as sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest opposition group of which former President Mohamed Morsi is a member. Qatar is seen as sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood as well.
Al Jazeera wildly condemns the Egyptian verdict and will fight to appeal the decision. The media broadcaster denies any bias in claims of being more sympathetic towards the Brotherhood and repeatedly calls for the release of their staff members. The verdict is final, but the fight continues.
Aliza Goldberg and Keshar Patel are editorial assistants at World Policy Journal.