A Cairo court on August 29 sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to three years in jail after finding them guilty of “aiding a terrorist organisation”.
Egyptian Baher Mohamed, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste were all handed three-year jail sentences when the court delivered the verdict, sparking worldwide outrage.
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Mohamed was sentenced to an additional six months for possession of a spent bullet casing.
The retrial of the journalists was repeatedly adjourned before the verdict was announced on August 29.
The journalists had been initially found guilty in June 2014 of aiding a “terrorist organisation”, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed in Egypt after the army overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
At the initial hearing, another six Al Jazeera journalists were tried in absentia on the same charges and were sentenced to 10 years’ jail.
Where do things stand now?
How many of your journalists have faced charges?
Three – Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. Peter Greste, our Nairobi-based reporter, has already been deported to his native Australia, but the judge in the case has continued to call his name and has asked the government for an explanation as to why he was released.
Another six Al Jazeera staff have been tried in absentia as part of the same case. Al Jazeera Arabic presenter Ahmed Mansour was part of a separate case.
We continue to defend their innocence from truly bizarre charges. An indication of how random the administration of charges has been is the implication of Dutch journalist, Rena Netjes, in the Al Jazeera case. She said she believed she was named, despite never working for us, because she once spoke to Fahmy in a hotel lobby. This underlines the absurd nature of the charges.
Were you reckless in reporting from Cairo when you knew the risks?
Absolutely not. Al Jazeera’s mission is to accurately cover events and shed light on people and issues in some of the most difficult environments in the world.
Before the arrests, no one could have predicted that the Egyptian authorities would lock up innocent journalists for over a year. All news organisations take risks when deploying to hostile environments. There is nothing we take more seriously than the safety of our staff. But these are risks that all reporters face, particularly in the Middle East, and Al Jazeera is no exception.
We respect the law of the land in every country we work in, but the disapproval of the powers that be cannot stop us from doing our jobs. Some of our journalists have paid the ultimate price. Journalists take risks to bring you the information you need. Everyone who worked for Al Jazeera in Egypt knew the risks but were dedicated to the profession.
The burden of responsibility for jailing innocent journalists does not lie on the journalists or their employers – but on those doing the jailing. That’s where the blame properly lies.
Was it negligent that your journalists did not have accreditation from the Egyptian authorities?
We’ve never made any secret that the crew did not have their full individual paperwork. None of this justifies criminal proceedings and jail time. In countries that require accreditation, it’s an administrative matter, not criminal.
Mohammed Fahmy says he has declared war on Al Jazeera. What is your response?
We are not at war with him. We’re supporting him and will continue to do so. We are focused on getting him and his colleagues out of this predicament.
Fahmy accuses you of “epic negligence” before the arrests.
Nobody takes safety more seriously than Al Jazeera. Our newsgathering operations are guided by this principle, and all decisions are taken in consultation with our teams on the ground. In the midst of a turbulent and unpredictable situation, we do the best we can. And we never pressure any of our journalists to do anything they don’t want to do.
Did Al Jazeera’s head of security advise against the deployment of any further teams to Egypt?
Did Al Jazeera receive any diplomatic warnings regarding its operations in Egypt?
Why did you not pay Fahmy’s bail?
Actually, we did, and in full. However, the Egyptian authorities have banned Al Jazeera from access to banking facilities. Despite that, we arranged for the funds to be in Cairo as soon as we could – within eight hours of bail being granted. By that time, Fahmy’s family had lodged the money, and we then reimbursed them.
Why did you not pay for Fahmy’s lawyer?
We did. We provide every support to our jailed colleagues, including legal defence, which was chosen in consultation with the detainees and their families. Fahmy himself decided throughout the course of the last year to have his own separate lawyer – Khalid Abubakr. We elected to cover those legal fees, even though we believed that a united defence would be a better choice.
How could you have put up such a catastrophic legal defence in the first trial?
We hired leading Egyptian Bar-accredited lawyers. One of them later elected to unprofessionally and unethically withdraw from the case in the midst of the trial, while he was in the process of being let go by Al Jazeera.
Our current lawyers secured a retrial in January. Most observers say that this being a politically charged trial, the performance of our legal teams has never been the main factor at play. The original verdict was ridiculous, and was struck down by the Egyptian judiciary as well. There has never been a shred of evidence to convict of any crime.
Why did you put AJE reports on Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, when Fahmy asked you not to?
Some footage may have been used on a very small number of occasions over the course of three months before the arrests. But AJMM also used footage from a variety of sources, including international news agencies and citizen journalists. It does not follow that all the journalists who produced this material were therefore de facto employees of AJMM. In any case, this issue was not part of the final verdict, so it is a distraction.
Why did you choose to seek compensation from the Egyptian government last year? Couldn’t you have waited until after the trial of your journalists?
Al Jazeera has faced a campaign of intimidation in Egypt since the summer of 2013, and it’s only right that we sought redress for the huge losses we incurred. There was unlikely to be a good time to table this. We were asking for a wrong to be righted and considered the claim as a means of putting more pressure on Egypt to respect its international legal obligations, and particularly in its treatment of our journalists.
We tried a quiet approach in August 2013, after Al Jazeera Arabic’s reporter Abdullah Elshamy was detained, and it yielded no results. He was finally released months later after strenuous campaigning led to mounting international pressure. Doing nothing achieved nothing.
Why didn’t you act on Mohammed Fahmy’s warnings and his offer to help mediate between Al Jazeera and the Egyptian authorities in late 2013?
The advice of Fahmy and many others in Al Jazeera was taken into consideration.
We have always done everything possible to maintain good relations with the Egyptian government. But it has always been clear that there is little tolerance for our balanced reporting.
Were your journalists caught up in a battle between Egypt and Qatar?
Nobody involved in the diplomacy of our case has said this publicly or privately. It’s a recent attempt to distract people from the main issue of press freedom. We’re the most watched news network in the region and are virtually alone in challenging official narratives. We’ve, unfortunately, had many encounters with authorities trying to clamp down on our reporting over the years, and this is the latest manifestation. That’s why so many people have been involved in the campaign for free our journalists – to uphold the ideal of a free press.
How many days did Al Jazeera’s journalists spend in jail?
Baher, Mohamed and Peter were arrested on December 29, 2013. Peter was released and expelled on February 1, 2015, after spending 400 days behind bars. Baher and Mohamed were released 12 days later on bail pending retrial.
Peter and Baher spent the entire duration behind bars, while Fahmy in July 2014 was transferred to a private hospital for medical assistance on his shoulder. Al Jazeera covered the costs for his hospital suite and treatment throughout those seven months.
Did you pay $1.5m to protesters as alleged by your former lawyer?
This is patently false. It is a conspiracy theory so convoluted that it wasn’t even raised among the absurd evidence presented in the original “false news” trial. The idea that a professional news organisation could secretly collude with thousands of protesters to the tune of more than a million dollars is absurd.
How could Al Jazeera have expected anything other than this situation with its Muslim Brotherhood bias?
There is no bias whatsoever. We report on all sides of the political spectrum. Only those who want to see one side of the story told would consider Al Jazeera’s reporting biased. We make no apology for giving air time to all views. We are proud of the work of our journalists who provided exemplary and fair coverage of Egypt without favouring any point of view. All their work is available to view online.
OK, but the Arabic channels are biased.
Al Jazeera’s Arabic channels are unique in the region, as they give voice to the myriad perspectives in Egypt and the Arab world. This includes governments, secularists, activists and Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. We make no apologies for doing our job as a news organisation and giving the full picture.
This is troubling to some who are not used to this openness and confuse it for bias towards a particular group. Our Arabic channels are the most watched and most credible in the Arab world, with Al Jazeera Arabic having more viewers than all of its competitors combined.
It is natural for those who want to limit access to information and viewpoints to try and undermine the channel through disinformation. They want to go back to the situation that existed before Al Jazeera – official narratives peddled to the public.
How has the #FreeAJStaff campaign been going?
• Global opinion is loud and clear – the Egyptian authorities should drop all charges against Al Jazeera’s journalists. Our web campaign has been viral, making billions of social media impressions with the hashtag #FreeAJStaff. Journalists, human rights campaigners, and individuals have been speaking out.
• Governments have responded, and the detentions have been criticised by the United States, European Union and others.
• All of these people and groups are not speaking out because this is about Al Jazeera. The situation is a challenge to journalism as a whole. If this stands unchallenged, this formula will be repeated elsewhere. Journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs. Journalism is not a crime.