Al Jazeera’s Bayoumi breaks silence on Egypt’s charges

For the first time, Al Jazeera’s Alaa Bayoumi talks about Egypt sentencing him in absentia on false charges.

For the last 17 months, Bayoumi - who was sentenced in absentia - has chosen to remain silent [Al Jazeera]

A few days after my colleagues at Al Jazeera English were arrested in Cairo, I received a phone call from the network’s lawyer in Egypt asking if I was in the country and warning me that my name had been mentioned during their interrogation.

He asked for my full name in Arabic and then hung up, promising to keep me updated. A few weeks later my worst fears were realised when a list of 20 suspects from the so-called “Marriott Cell” were named by the Egyptian authorities. I was one of them.

Along with Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and five others, I was accused of joining the Muslim Brotherhood, providing it with material and financial support, airing false news and owning banned broadcast equipment. My reaction to the accusations has not changed in the 17 months since. It was shock and disbelief because I never understood how I was involved.

Firstly, I have never worked for Al Jazeera in Egypt. I visited the office there once and for about two hours on a personal trip in early 2012. I have never even met Baher Mohamed or Mohamed Fahmy, who joined the network just a few months before their unfortunate arrest.

I have seen Peter Greste, who has been Al Jazeera’s correspondent in East Africa, a few times at the Doha headquarters, but we were never properly introduced before his arrest.

Baseless allegations

Needless to say, I have never sent any money to AJE in Egypt or in any other country. I don’t own any broadcast equipment. I have never joined, financed, or supported the Muslim Brotherhood or any other group in Egypt. I have been living outside of the country for the last 18 years, and I hardly ever visit.

I am proud of my work and of our coverage of Egypt’s news, and I feel that banning us is of severe disservice to the Egyptian people. I am particularly proud of AJE’s coverage of the Arab Spring and of the Egyptian revolution in particular. I remember weeks of round-the-clock coverage of the protests in Tahrir Square and around the country, people dreaming of a better future. AJE was there and I was part of the team that helped drive the coverage of these historic events from Doha.

Peter Greste gives speech at Al Jazeera HQ in Doha

As a senior Middle East news producer, I have been at the heart of AJE’s coverage of the region since its launch and I am proud of what we have achieved so far.

We are a very diverse group of international journalists who try to do our work as objectively and neutrally as we can. We don’t shy away from speaking truth to power.

Weeks before the toppling of Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leaders from power, I wrote critical reports on his foreign policy, the status of the economy and a lack of police reform .

After the July 2013 military coup that removed Morsi from power, I wrote about the disenchantment of political moderates who still hoped to move their country towards democracy and about the growing involvement of Egypt’s military in politics.

Every day I challenge myself to go beyond headlines and to learn something new about the complicated politics and cultures of the Middle East, hoping that such knowledge will be reflected in my humble contributions to our coverage of the region.

And, when it comes to our coverage of Egypt, I challenge myself not to feel intimidated or to let my unfair and baseless 10-year conviction in absentia influence my reporting.

Waiting for news

For the last 17 months, I watched patiently as the case unfolded. I tried to follow, as much as I could, the details, the evidence presented against us, the media coverage and to seek our lawyers’ advice.

I waited for the Egyptian government to present, during the initial trial and the ongoing retrial, any concrete evidence that supported its accusations against us. But I lost interest as I came to the conclusion that the whole thing never made any sense from the start.

It was simply a tactic of intimidation aimed at curtailing our coverage of Egypt.

Such tactics have not only been used against myself or my colleagues. In early May, Amnesty International released a report documenting how Egyptian authorities have been using jails and heavy court sentences to target journalists who dare to challenge the authorities’ political narrative and human rights record.

For example, the report talks about the case of freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zied, known as “Shawkan”, who has spent over 600 days in detention without charge or trial. It also speaks about at least six journalists who have been killed covering protests since June 2013.

FAQs: Al Jazeera’s journalists on trial in Egypt

Learning about the suffering of those colleagues or about my three colleagues, Peter, Baher, and Mohamed, who spent more than 400 days in jail, I know how fortunate I have been.

Our case has received widespread international coverage and was condemned by many world leaders. I did not spend a single day in jail. I was neither shot at nor had to undergo medical operations – as was the case for one Al Jazeera cameraman, shot in the arm while covering protests in Port Said.

Speaking out

For the last 17 months I have chosen to remain silent. As a journalist, I am much more used to speaking about the suffering of others than about my own. I feel deep in my heart that I should not be the story. I also felt that my jailed colleagues were the priority and should have received all the attention until they were safe and free.

However, now it is time to speak up. As journalists we always encourage victims of abuse to speak up and to expose perpetrators. We should set the example. I strongly feel that I owe such a testimony to myself, my family, and my colleagues who want to expose the injustice we continue to suffer.

The Middle East in general, and Egypt in particular, is dangerous territory for journalists and there is a need for all those concerned to speak out.

The media is not the source of the Middle East’s problems and journalists should not be targeted and intimidated so as to stop their coverage.

I hope that Mohamed and Baher will be set free soon and, once this happens, that the world will not forget that six more Al Jazeera journalists, including myself, continue to carry unjust 10-year sentences. We were named and convicted in a baseless case that aimed to intimidate our network and other independent media groups.

As an Egyptian, I can no longer visit my country. I cannot see my extended family, and I cannot even take my kids on a trip to show them their home.

I am effectively living in exile.

Source: Al Jazeera


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