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Fighting Egypt's crackdown on press freedom

International journalists make a stand in solidarity with imprisoned Al Jazeera staff.

Last updated: 04 Feb 2014 19:31
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Gagged by the flag: East Africa journalists protest against Egypt's crackdown on journalists [Phil Moore]

Nairobi, Kenya - "Journalists are never supposed to become the story," wrote Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste in a letter that was smuggled out of Tora Prison in Cairo, where he is currently being detained. "Apart from the print reporter's byline or the broadcaster's sign-off, we are supposed to remain in the background as witnesses to, or agents for, the news; never as its subject."

At 10 am on February 4 in Greste's home city, Nairobi, co-workers, rival broadcasters, photographers and journalists made no apology for breaking this rule by staging a peaceful protest in solidarity with him.

Almost a hundred people, many wearing Greste's face on T-shirts and carrying banners and placards, marched to the Egyptian embassy and planted themselves outside its gates. They stayed there for three hours, overlooked by the baking sun and several divisions of the Kenyan police. Meanwhile, a parallel social media campaign went viral and reached millions. "What if all journalists were gagged?" tweeted Channel Four News' International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum. Like many, Hilsum posted an accompanying picture of her with her mouth taped up.

"The whole worldwide campaign has gone beyond what we had imagined," said Peter's brother, Andrew Greste. "Our view is that we have to keep going to continue to build pressure on the Egyptian government until they release them. This is what Peter also wants."

Egypt's secret police arrested the award-winning Australian journalist Greste and two of his Egyptian colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, in Cairo on December 29.

Journalists protest outside Egypt's embassy in Nairobi

"It's almost 40 days now since their incarceration began," said Al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Adow, addressing the media outside the Egyptian embassy in Nairobi. "We believe they've done no wrong. They've just been doing their work in the best way they could." The United Nations, international rights bodies, and media personalities have all called on the Egyptian government to release the journalists, Adow said.

Journalism does not equal terrorism

At the embassy gates, broadcaster and head of the regional Foreign Correspondents' Association, Robyn Kriel, read aloud from an open letter to Greste: "Those of us who are journalists stand as you. 'We are all Peter Greste' is one of the slogans we are bearing aloft. Others among us stand here today for the tenets of truth, freedom of the press, and democracy. Journalism does not equal terrorism; you have committed no crime… We respect and applaud your honesty and bravery, and we say, as one, that this is our battle, too."

Al Jazeera presenters, including Dareen
Abu Ghaida, and journalists around the
world, have taken part in the
#freeAJstaff campaign

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) confirms that at least 10 journalists are currently incarcerated in Egypt. "There's more likely around 20 to 25 actually in prison at the moment, one of the largest crackdowns on journalists we have seen in a long time," said Tom Rhodes, the organisation's East Africa representative. Rhodes said that press freedom in Egypt today is in some ways no better, and in some maybe worse, than under longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the 2011 uprising.

Last week, Egyptian prosecutors announced their intention to place criminal charges on 20 people working for the Al Jazeera network. Rhodes said that the CPJ fears that a crackdown on an international media organisation at such an unprecedented level bodes even worse for the treatment of local journalists.

"It's so tragic, especially when you consider the struggle and the blood, sweat and tears that the Egyptian people undertook to develop these freedoms - such as press freedom," said Rhodes. "And now that space is being diminished once again. When we're sitting here fighting for the release of our friend Peter Greste, we're really sitting here trying to fight for the freedom of the country as well."

Boniface Mwangi, an award-winning documentary photographer and one of Kenya's most prolific young activists, turned out in support of his friend and fellow journalist. But like most of the protesters here, he also has a vested interest in fighting for a free press. "So far, this has happened in Egypt. But who knows where Kenya's going to go? I'm not just here for Peter, I'm here for myself."

While the inexperienced yet determined picket waited in the driveway of the Egyptian embassy, two representatives from the protest group went inside to meet the deputy ambassador and deliver their open letter to Greste. The deputy ambassador said that the embassy would notify the Egyptian state of their concerns but emphasised that the state cannot intervene in the Egyptian courts - as is the case around the world. Kriel, chairperson of the Foreign Correspondents' Association of East Africa, relayed the consulate's message to the waiting crowds. "We mean business," she said.

Photographer Phil Moore is shooting a series of photographs depicting members of the press and public gagged by an Egyptian flag. "As journalists, it's imperative that we have the right to work freely and so when our colleagues are detained, it's essential that we remind the world what that detention means. In this case, the flag represents the silencing of journalists in Egypt, and I hope that by documenting people's disdain, these images will in some way help to maintain a spotlight on the Egyptian crackdown."

According to Adow, the network has not yet been supplied with any information by the Egyptian government, and nor have they been formally notified of any charges against Greste and his colleagues.

"If he's not released, we'll be back," was the message left behind by protesters after they packed up their placards. A determined Kriel concluded: "We are not going to rest until we see Greste."

Follow Jessica Hatcher on Twitter: @jessiehatcher

Editor's note: The Egyptian prosecutor has accused Al Jazeera of producing "false news" in the country. We have collated all of the TV reports produced by Al Jazeera teams from the field between July 2013 and the arrest of our journalists. We make no apologies for telling all sides of the story, and we stand by our journalism. Judge for yourself on our special coverage page: Journalism under fire: Where is the "false news"?

To take part in the viral social media campaign, tweet a photo of yourself using the hashtag: #freeAJstaff

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Al Jazeera
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