Anguish ongoing for jailed Al Jazeera staff

Colleagues and families rally for reporters incarcerated in Egypt for weeks.

Abdullah Al-Shami, left, was detained about two months ago, while Mohammed Badr has been held since July

Abdullah al-Shami, one of Al Jazeera Arabic’s correspondents in Egypt, spent his first marriage anniversary in an Egyptian prison. The wife of Mohammed Badr, a cameraman for Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, had the couple’s first child while her husband was in jail.

The two reporters have been detained by Egyptian authorities for weeks. The arrests are part of what Reporters Without Borders has called “growing hostility” towards journalists in Egypt.

Al-Shami was imprisoned on August 14 while covering the deadly crackdown on supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi in Rabea al-Adawiya square. He had been reporting from a hospital where scores of protesters were being treated before it was stormed by the military. Al-Shami and dozens of other people in the hospital were arrested. He has not been formally charged.

“For two days, I did not know his fate, whether he was dead or alive,” Jihad Khaled, al-Shami’s wife, told Al Jazeera. “The military revealed to Al Jazeera later that he had been transferred to Abu Zaabal prison near Cairo.”

On September 26, al-Shami’s detention was extended for 45 days.

Timeline: Al Jazeera targeted in Egypt

July 3: Egyptian authorities raid Al Jazeera Arabic and Mubasher Misr bureaus in Cairo. Twenty-eight staff, including Mubasher’s managing Director, Ayman Gaballah, were arrested. The employees were later released after six hours. Gaballah was released four days later on a LE10,000 ($1,451) bail.

July 12: Five members of Al Jazeera English’s staff were detained in Suez for several hours.

July 15: Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr’s cameraman Mohammad Badr was arrested.

July 19: Al Jazeera television channels were intermittently jammed in Egypt and this has continued sporadically.

August 14: Abdullah al-Shami, one of Al Jazeera Arabic’s correspondents in Cairo, was detained. He remains in prison without being formally charged.

August 16: Al Jazeera Arabic’s bureau was raided. Abdel Fattah Fayed, the bureau chief, was taken into custody and later released on bail of LE10,000.

August 27: Al Jazeera English’s correspondent Wayne Hay, cameraman Adil Bradlow, and producer Russ Finn were detained. They were released five days later.

October 5: Friends, colleagues and family of Mohammad Badr and Abdullah al-Shami gather in Doha to push for the release of the journalists.

Arrested for filming, Bader had been recording anti-military coup protests on July 15 in Ramsis Square from on top of a bridge before a tear gas canister exploded nearby, forcing him to stop the live broadcast and run away without his gear.

“He later returned to collect his equipment. But the Baltagiyah [government-backed thugs] were waiting for him. They set up a trap. Just as he got close to the equipment, many thugs attacked him from all sides and took him to the police station,” Sally Badr, Mohammed’s sister, told Al Jazeera.

Badr spent rough times at al-Yazbakiyyah police station, his sister said. He was put in a small cell with dozens of other detainees.

At night, groups of thugs would be let into the prison to beat detainees, Sally said, adding that her brother watched other inmates get assaulted but wasn’t himself beaten.

“I think because back then the military was still worried about its reputation,” she said. “It was still the beginning of their crackdown on journalists.”

The public prosecution referred Badr to the Criminal Court on charges of attempted murder, demonstration and carrying a firearm, accusations he denies.

Since the military takeover on July 3, dozens of journalists have been arrested and several television stations shut down in Egypt.

Al Jazeera seems to have been targeted with particular ferocity. Its offices have been raided a number of times and several of its journalists arrested, but only Badr and al-Shami remain in jail.

The military-backed interim government accuses Al Jazeera of bias, misinformation and fabrication of events, charges the news organisation vehemently denies.

Badr was later transferred to Tora prison, where former President Hosni Mubarak had once been jailed. “Unfortunately Mohammed was in the worst division in that prison,” Sally said.

When she visited him, his face and body were suffering from a rash because he was never treated for his exposure to tear gas prior to his arrest.

A month into his incarceration, Mohammed’s son was born and the whole family, including the newborn, went to see Badr.

“When Mohammed met his son for the first time, we all cried. Even Mohammed, who doesn’t usually express a lot of emotions, cried. He almost wanted to keep him in the cell with him,” Sally recalled as her eyes began watering.

‘The cost of truth’

Al-Shami’s wife Jihad, meanwhile, said she believed the situation of her husband was slightly better than Badr’s.

She has visited him five times. Each visit lasted only a few minutes. Jail guards watched the couple and listened to everything they said.

Jihad said treatment from the guards improved as the media campaign calling for her husband’s release intensified. She organised several sit-ins and campaigns to help her husband.

Herself a journalist and member of the Egypt Journalists’ Syndicate, Sally said she asked Diaa Rashwan, the union’s leader, to release a statement condemning the detention of her brother. She said he refused.

“Most journalists in Egypt side with the powerful not the weak,” Sally said.

“When Mubarak was in power, most of them supported Mubarak. Now that the military is in power, they don’t dare to be critical of it. They want to keep their jobs.”

Sally said several of her colleagues working in state-sponsored media advised her to appear on pro-military channels to criticise Al Jazeera. They believed this would speed up her brother’s release.

“But what will I trash Al Jazeera for?” she asked. “I have nothing negative to say against it. My conscience doesn’t allow me to lie. Plus, I have never heard my brother complaining about being forced to take a certain political line,” she said.

“What hurts me the most about his detention is that my brother is just a cameraman. He has nothing to do with politics. He never attended protests. He does not hold a microphone or a pen and expresses opinions.”

Both Sally and Jihad said they believed the detentions were bargaining chips to pressure Al Jazeera into refraining from covering anti-military protests.

“If we have to choose between Al Jazeera covering the truth and the release of my husband, then let my husband stay in prison,” Jihad said. “His imprisonment is the cost of the truth.”

Source: Al Jazeera