The trial of Al Jazeera journalists puts Cairo’s crackdown on the media in the spotlight – but for Egyptian journalists a climate of fear has been pervasive since the military took control last June.
On Thursday, three Al Jazeera journalists faced their first trial hearing in Cairo – accused of being involved with terrorist organisations and of disseminating “false information”.
Australian journalist Peter Greste and Egyptian journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, as well as six other Al Jazeera journalists, are among a group of twenty facing charges in connection to this case.
On Thursday the court adjourned the trial until 5 March. Al Jazeera English Managing Director Al Anstey said the channel was “deeply disappointed” that the men had not been freed.
The detentions have sparked a high-profile campaign for the journalists to be freed (see picture, below). At a demonstration outside the Egyptian embassy on Wednesday, Al Jazeera journalist Sue Turton told Channel 4 News how Al Jazeera staff had been covering events in Egypt as they would any other story.
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that the prosecution of these journalists shows “how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating.”
Above: Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum and Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller supporting the campaign to free Al Jazeera staff.
However, the crackdown on the media and on wider freedoms of expression is not a new phenomenon.
Attacks on the media have been taking place throughout Egypt’s recent turbulent history – however, they appear to have escalated following the military coup that ousted President Morsi in July 2013. A month later the military declared a state of emergency in the country – which has enabled the de facto government to tighten its control over the media.
Egypt was the third deadliest country in the world for the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says, behind Syria and Iraq.
The CPJ reports that six journalists were killed in 2013 – higher than any other year since the organisation records began in 1992. Five out of these six were killed after President Morsi was ousted on 3 July.
Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job. Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The deceased often worked for media organisations that supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the ousted president, or were deemed to have beensupporting it.
The first journalist killed following the military takeover was Ahmed Assem el-Senousy, a photographer for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice newspaper. He was killed while covering clashes between pro-Morsi supporters and security forces in the days following the military takeover.
El-Senousy, who was 26, was shot by a sniper after reportedly photographing security forces firing on protesters.
Above: Photographers head for shelter in the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque camp.
On August 14 the military began clearing pro-Morsi sit-in camps across Cairo. Mosaab al-Shami, Ahmed Abdel Gawad and Mick Deane of Sky News were all shot dead that day at a sit in at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque.
The week of clashes left nearly 1,000 people dead in Egypt, and the three journalists were there to report on the military crackdown.
Al-Shami, a photographer for the Rassd News Network which had criticised the military coup, was reported to have been shot in the chest by a sniper. Gawad, a reporter with state television, was also the editorial manager of the Muslim Brotherhood’s TV station, Misr25. Mick Deane had worked for Sky for 15 years.
The CPJ also found that five journalists were being held behind bars when it conducted its annual prison census on 1 December 2013 – but added that the number did not include the dozens of journalists who were detained without charge and later released.
It has listed 71 “anti-press violations” in the 90 days following the military coup – including 32 detentions, 27 assaults and injuries, nine raids and three confiscations.
Human Rights Watch has also recorded how “Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent.”
In the aftermath of President Morsi’s departure, the charity says, security forces closed down television stations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. 18 contributors to the citizen news network Rassd, which al-Shami worked for, have been detained.
As freedom of information is the cornerstone of any democratic state, we urge the authorities to release all detained news providers and to drop all proceedings against them. Reporters Without Borders
In 2014 the climate of fear for journalists in Egypt has remained, Human Rights Watch said.
On 22 January an Egyptian filmmaker, Hossam al-Menai, and an American translator, Jeremy Hodge, were arrested at an apartment in Cairo. Mr Hodge was released four days later, but Mr al-Menai was held for 18 days, and still faces charges of spreading “false names and endangering the stability of the nation.”
Mr al-Menai is said to have been tortured whilst in detention.
On 1 February, police arrested a Yemeni blogger, Fera Shamsan, following interviews he had conducted at a Cairo book fair. It has been reported that Mr Shamsan got into an argument at the fair because of comments relating to the military coup, and was arrested by police.
He faces charges of spreading false news about the Egyptian authorities, receiving money from foreign agencies, taking photographs without permission, and disturbing the public peace.
On 2 February police raided Yqeen and Hasry, Cairo-based media outlets, arresting 13 staff members on allegations of inciting violence and airing false news. Police later released the journalists on bail, though Human Rights Watch said they still face criminal charges.
And it is not just journalists who are funding their freedoms curtailed. In recent months arrests have been made over critical tweets, for distributing posters and for giving critical lectures.
The Interior Ministry announced on January 30 that it would begin arresting those who engage in what it termed incitement against the police and other citizens on social media websites.
And the situation does not appear to be improving. At the start of the month, proposed anti-terrorism legislation was leaked – sparking concerns about government censorship. The legislation took a broad definition of terrorism as “acts of violence, threat, intimidation that obstruct public authorities or government, as well as implementation of the constitution.”
The legislation would allow for social networking sites, such as Facebook, to be barred if they are seemed to be endangering public order.