Journalists are never supposed to become the story. 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.
That’s why I find all the attention following our incarceration all very unsettling. This isn’t to suggest I am ungrateful. All of us who were arrested in the interior ministry’s sweep of Al Jazeera’s staff on December 29 are hugely encouraged by and grateful for the overwhelming show of support from across the globe. From the letter signed by 46 of the region’s most respected and influential foreign correspondents calling for our immediate release to the petition from Australian colleagues the letter writing and online campaigns and family press conferences – all of it has been both humbling and empowering.
We know we are not alone.
But what is galling is that we are into our fourth week behind bars for what I consider to be some pretty mundane reporting.
I’ve produced work in the past that has involved lots of detailed investigation, considerable risk, and not a small amount of sweat, that I wished the authorities would have been even a little bit offended by. Yet too often it has slipped out with infuriatingly little response.
This assignment to Cairo had been relatively routine – an opportunity to get to know Egyptian politics a little better. But, with only three weeks on the ground, hardly time to do anything other than tread water. So when a squad of plainclothes agents forced their way into my room, I was at first genuinely confused and later even a little annoyed that it wasn’t for some more significant slight.
This is not a trivial point. The fact that we were arrested for what seems to be a set of relatively uncontroversial stories tells us a lot about what counts as “normal” and what is dangerous in post-revolutionary Egypt.
‘A routine body of reporting’
Of course, the allegations we are facing suggest anything but normal journalistic endeavours. The state has accused three of us – myself, and producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – of collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood to use unlicensed equipment to broadcast information we knew to be false to defame and destabilise Egypt. Fahmy and Baher are further accused of being MB members. It’s a rap sheet that would be comically absurd if it wasn’t so deadly serious.
I’m keen to see what “evidence” the investigators have concocted to prove the allegations. But to date we have not been formally charged with any crime. We are merely in detention to give them time to assemble their case so the prosecutor can decide if it is strong enough to take to court. Under Egypt’s judicial system, we won’t get to see the file until charges are formally laid.
So, all we have is what we did – a routine body of reporting on the political drama unfolding around us, and what it might mean for Egypt. The fact that this has put us behind bars is especially alarming given the historical moment Egypt now finds itself in.
The current interim government emerged after widespread street protests and pressure from the military pushed Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, from power. In the eyes of Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, it was a military coup to the government’s supporters, it was a popular overthrow – with a little help from the military – of an administration that had broken its promises on moderation created widespread discontent cracked down on dissent, and was dragging Egypt towards a closed-minded theocracy.
To defend the revolution, Egyptians have just passed a fiercely liberal constitution that, among other things, explicitly defends… freedom of speech. Article 11 even expressly protects journalists from imprisonment for crimes committed through publishing or broadcast.
‘No desire to see Egypt struggle’
But what constitutes a breach of the law in this case seems to be relative, where anything too far beyond the bounds of normally accepted limits becomes a threat. It isn’t that we pushed those limits. After more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent, I know what is safe ground. And we didn’t stray anywhere near that edge.
But the state here seems to see itself in an existential struggle that pits the forces of good, open, free society against the Islamist “terrorists” still struggling to seize control. In that environment, “normal” has shifted so far from the more widely accepted “middle” that our work suddenly appeared to be threatening.
We were not alone in our reporting, but our arrest has served as a chilling warning to others of where the middle is here.
In this “new normal”, secular activists – including some of my prison neighbours – have been imprisoned at least three times, first for opposing the now fallen autocrat Hosni Mubarak then for protesting at the excesses of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood administration and now for what they say is draconian overreach by the current government. Campaigners putting up “no” posters for the recent constitutional referendum are also in prison, as is anyone caught taking part in Muslim Brotherhood organised protests (the Brotherhood is now deemed to be a “terrorist organisation”). In this “new normal”, an independant agency reckons some 21,000 were arrested in the five months since Morsi’s ousting on June 30, while 2,665 people had been killed and almost 16,000 injured in the same period. And, of course, among the detained are journalists, including ourselves, accused of supporting terrorism and undermining the state.
Let me be clear: I have no desire to weaken Egypt nor in any way see it struggle. Nor do I have any interest in supporting any group, the Muslim Brotherhood or otherwise. But then our arrest doesn’t seem to be about our work at all. It seems to be about staking out what the government here considers to be normal and acceptable. Anyone who applauds the state is seen as safe and deserving of liberty. Anything else is a threat that needs to be crushed.
Tora prison, 21/1/2014.