Egypt announced on 29 Januarythat they will charge 20 Al-Jazeera journalists with fabricating news and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation abroad. Sixteen of the defendants with Egyptian citizenship are also accused of belonging to former president Mohamed Morsi’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. The journalists include award-winning Nairobi-based Australian correspondent Peter Greste, Al Jazeera English producer Mohamed Fahmy and Cairo-based producer Baher Mohamed. The last three were arrested by security forces on the evening of 29 December. A few days after (2 February 2014), a leaked video of the arrest of Fahmy and Greste was broadcasted on a private TV channel that supports the government in the new military-led government in Egypt. The New Yorker reports that this government has subjected journalists to months of passive-aggressive treatment (obtaining press credentials has become a bureaucratic nightmare) and a few episodes of outright aggression (arresting several reporters on trumped-up charges, including support for terrorism).
The actions by the Egyptian government have mobilised journalists through a demonstration in Nairobi, Kenya in support of the detained journalists as well as an online campaign. The call for the release of the imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists has gone global, #FreeAJStaff hashtag has conquered timelines all over the digital globe with hundreds of tweets from media people, activists and citizens asking the Egyptian government to free the four Al Jazeera journalists (added to the above mentioned three, correspondent Abdullah Al Shami has been detained since August 2013). A number of journalists have posted portraits with covered mouths – the sign of being silenced – on Twitter and it is being speculated that the campaign was started by Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News International Editor and Jonathan Miller, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Channel 4 News. Peter Greste family has opened a twitter account announcing that it is run on his behalf while he is “wrongfully imprisoned”. Friends and fellow co-workers of Greste have demonstrated in front of the Egyptian embassy in Nairobi announcing their solidarity with the arrested journalists in Egyptian cells.
The events are the result of an escalated condemning by the press society since the arrests took place. On 13 January, 46 of the Middle East’s most respected and influential foreign correspondents have issued a statement calling for immediate release of Al Jazeera reporters warning that “the arrest of these journalists has cast a cloud over press and media freedom in Egypt”. On 28 January. US Senator John McCain condemned the imprisonment of Al Jazeera journalists calling their detention “a clear violation” of human rights and press freedom.
Many online activists have joined in the call for the release of the journalists and adding names of other imprisoned journalists worldwide. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there were 211 journalists in prison in 2013, a figure that Reporters Without Borders (RWB) website indicates is a bit less with 177 journalists.
Text by Assaad Thebian