On June 23, 2014, Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were sentenced to seven, seven and 10 years respectively for conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and “spreading false news.” Although their trial and sentencing has provoked widespread condemnation, this is not the first time that journalists have suffered such a fate in Egypt. In this blog, journalist Ayub Nuri writes on how Mohamed Morsi’s fear of the press persists even without him.
Egypt has never been an easy place for journalists. But in the past three years countless local journalists, TV anchors, writers and comedians have been silenced, threatened, killed or put in jail for criticizing the government, the army or a religious institution. This is not what Egyptians or, indeed, the rest of the world expected from the Arab Spring. We thought that after Hosni Mubarak, the media would be the first thing to become free.
The long-term sentences handed down to three Al Jazeera journalists on charges of “supporting the Muslim Brotherhood” and “acting against Egypt’s national security” indicates otherwise. One of these journalists is Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, one is Peter Greste, a former BBC correspondent whose reports I used to listen to all the time and the third, is Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed. After six months detention in horrible conditions they were sentenced to between seven to 10 years in jail.
Putting journalists in jail is not only a crime, in doing so the Egyptian authorities took a giant leap backwards.
As I watched judge’s face as he read out the order, I wondered who looked more like a criminal – the scary-looking judge, with his dead eyes, or the three journalists who were there to do their honorable job of reporting the news.
It reminded me of Sahar al-Haydari, a close journalist friend of mine from Mosul. I had trained her to be a radio reporter. In 2007, she was ambushed in front of her home in Mosul by a group of gunmen who riddled her body with bullets, killing her on the spot. Later, the gunmen posted a statement on the Internet, saying that they knew Sahar was a government agent because they had found the phone numbers for the mayor and police chief on her cellphone.
The gunmen in Iraq and the judges in Egypt should know that a journalist collects phone numbers of government officials and more often than not associates with insurgent and guerrilla groups. That is part of the job of a journalist.
Putting journalists in jail is not only a crime, in doing so the Egyptian authorities took a giant leap backwards. They undid all the sacrifice, revolution and uprising that people in that country have endured for three years in order to end repression and establish freedom of speech and respect for human rights.
I knew Egypt would take years to transition to democracy after decades of dictatorship, but I thought that respect for journalists and the reversal of Mubarak’s draconian press laws would happen sooner. When Mubarak was still in power, I travelled to Egypt as a working journalist and I remember how scared he was of the press. For almost a year I tried to get a visa. At first I wanted to go as a tourist, to see the pyramids. I had no intention of reporting. But I was stonewalled by every Egyptian embassy or consulate. By chance, in 2005 at a hotel in Amman, I met a Jordanian lawyer who happened to know the Egyptian consul general. When I told him how hard it was to get a visa, he picked up the phone, made a one-minute call and told me to go and pick it up the following day.
At the consulate, thanks to the phone call, I was whisked through the gates.I handed over my passport and it was returned, five minutes later, with a visa stamped inside. “But you are a journalist,” said the Consul’s secretary. “And the consul says that you must promise not to write anything while you are there.”
I wasn’t surprised at all by this comment. First, because old Iraqi passports listed your profession and mine said “journalist.” Second, because I knew the nature of Mubarak’s repressive regime and its fear of a free media. I was there during the national elections in which for the first time someone had dared to contest the dictator. It was Ayman Nur, head of the El Ghad party.
Mohammed Morsi put his TV critics in jail and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi put three journalists in the same ugly iron cage that Mubarak was put in after three decades of tyranny.
Back then; this kind of attitude was understandable. But it is sad that the two presidents that came after Mubarak have not behaved any better. Mohammed Morsi put his TV critics in jail and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi put three journalists in the same ugly iron cage that Mubarak was put in after three decades of tyranny.
World leaders and journalists across the globe have condemned the Egyptian court ruling on the three Aljazeera journalists. Meanwhile the governments of Australia and certainly Canada have been criticized for not doing enough to get their citizens out. It is undoubtedly the duty of these governments to spare no effort and apply every pressure to secure the release of my fellow journalists. But I would never trust a man who removes his military uniform, puts on a suit and a tie and overnight becomes a smiling civilian president.
Ayub Nuri is a Kurdish journalist and an editor at Rudaw news network. Nuri was Baghdad correspondent for Global Radio News in 2003-2006. He’s been published in numerous outlets, including the Washington Post and New York Times and Toronto Star.