Alarming Convictions of Al Jazeera Journalists in Egypt
The conviction of three journalists by an Egyptian court on Monday for doing their jobs is the latest effort by the country’s military-backed rulers to crush all dissent. The alarming verdict sends a chilling and intimidating message not just to other journalists working in the country but to Egyptian citizens as well.
The three respected professionals, who worked for Al Jazeera’s English-language network, faced specious charges of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood — which dominated the government that the military overthrew last summer — to broadcast false reports of civil unrest. The prosecution offered no publicly available evidence that the journalists supported the Brotherhood or broadcast anything inaccurate.
In fact, when asked by the court to display the allegedly false news reports obtained from the defendants’ laptops, prosecutors showed images of one journalist’s family vacation and horses grazing in Luxor, Egypt. That would be laughable if the consequences were not so grave.
Two of the men, Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen of Egyptian descent who had worked for CNN and The New York Times, and Peter Greste, an Australian who had worked for the BBC and had spent only a few days in Egypt at the time of his arrest, were each sentenced to seven years in prison. Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, who had worked for the Japanese news organization The Asahi Shimbun, received an extra three years, apparently for possession of a single spent bullet that he recovered as a souvenir at a protest demonstration. Several students were also convicted and sentenced in the same trial, and other journalists were convicted in absentia.
The defendants are allowed to appeal the verdicts, but the process could take years. Along with human rights groups, Britain, Australia and Canada denounced the journalists’ convictions and pledged to press for their release.
The Obama administration’s response was confused and disturbing. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been overeager to engage with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general who led the 2013 coup and won a staged election in May, picked an awkward time to show up in Cairo. Aware that the verdicts were coming, he arrived on Sunday and declared his wish to repair relations. He also expressed confidence in Mr. Sisi’s commitment to “a re-evaluation of the judicial process” and said the United States would soon resume most of its annual $1.3 billion in military aid that was suspended.
When the verdicts were announced, the American statements hardened. Mr. Kerry called them a “disturbing setback to Egypt’s transition,” while the White House condemned the convictions and urged Mr. Sisi to pardon the journalists and others given political sentences in recent years. But there was no talk of cutting back on aid, and on Tuesday Mr. Sisi said he would not interfere in the judicial process.
The United States has interests in maintaining a relationship with Egypt to ensure that it honors the peace treaty with Israel, allows American ships to transit the Suez Canal and cooperates on counterterrorism, an issue of growing importance given the success of Sunni militants in Iraq. But Egypt benefits from ties with America, too.
More than 16,000 people are in jail for political reasons and more than 1,000 have been killed during protests. This brutality could produce the same result in Egypt as it has in Iraq, exacerbating sectarian divisions and empowering a radical fringe.
June 24, 2014: This editorial has been updated to reflect news developments.