The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned Egypt’s charges against Al Jazeera staff, and said that press freedom in the country is in sharp decline.
Three journalists from Al Jazeera English have been jailed in Cairo since December 29, charged with links to a “terrorist organisation” and “spreading false news”. Other reporters of the channel are wanted by the government.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, CPJ’s Middle East coordinator, Sherif Mansour, called the charges “baseless”.
“We know it’s a political case,” he said. “They’re basically charged for being journalists. There is no evidence that suggest they have incited violence.”
The trial of correspondent Peter Greste and producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed is set to begin on February 20.
Al Jazeera has denied all charges against its staff and demands their “unconditional release”.
A fourth reporter, Abdullah al-Shami of Al Jazeera Arabic, has been detained since August. He has been on hunger strike for more than three weeks to protest his imprisonment.
Last week, the network said it was served with a list of 20 people being pursued by the Egyptian government, but that only nine of those named were on its staff.
In a report released on Wednesday, the CPJ said the Middle East is the most dangerous place for journalists to work.
It said Syria is the deadliest place for reporters with 28 killed in 2013, followed by Iraq and Egypt.
In Egypt, the group said “foreign news organisations seen as unsympathetic to the military regime, including CNN and Al Jazeera, were systematically harassed”.
It said since the military toppled President Mohamed Morsi in July, at least five journalists were killed, 30 assaulted, and 11 news outlets raided. The group said it documented the detention of at least 44 journalists.
“Journalists who deviate from the official narrative are in danger of censorship, arrest, prosecution, or assault. There’s a sense among reporters that while Morsi’s efforts to intimidate the press into silence largely failed, military censorship is starting to take root,” the report said.
The report was also critical of the situation for reporters in Egypt before the overthrow of Morsi, saying the former president, of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his allies “used highly charged rhetoric and legal harassment to intimidate critical journalists”.