On December 29, three Al Jazeera English journalists were arrested in Egypt. One hundred days later, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed, held on charges including spreading false news and holding illegal meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood, remain in prison.
As part of a global demand for the immediate release the Al Jazeera staffers, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the newly formed Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and Information Project, and Columbia Global Centers hosted a symposium on Monday night called “100 Days: Egypt vs. Press Freedom” at the Columbia Journalism School to discuss implications the journalists’ detention has on free speech in Egypt and around the world.
Moderator Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, began the discussion by remarking that while this is not the most extreme case of repression in Egypt’s history, nor the only recent effort to silence the press in Egypt, it has been a “profoundly consequential case” for many people in the US and around the world.
“What has struck me most about this case is the explicit criminalizing of normal news practice,” he said.
Shapiro turned the floor over to panelist Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president for newsgathering at Al Jazeera America. McGinnis echoed Shapiro’s sentiment, denouncing the jailing of her colleagues as “outrageous.”
“The authorities did not like our journalists talking to the other side,” McGinnis said. “It’s a sad state of affairs when you see your colleagues in a cage in white jumpsuits, like animals, like criminals…It brings out an anger that is unrelenting.”
She added that while Al Jazeera English has been the center of this case, journalists around the world are being targeted, arrested, and killed “just for doing their jobs.” Among them is Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy, who has been detained in Egypt for 236 days, and on a hunger strike for 77.
Also on the panel was Yehia Ghanem, an Egyptian journalist and current international journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Last year, Ghanem was sentenced to two years of hard labor for connections with international NGOs following his efforts to train young journalists. He is now living in exile in New York.
“My message for my fellow journalists in Egypt, including Al Jazeera journalists, is to hang onto each other, or else, we will hang next to each other,” he said, adding that he holds out hope that circumstances will change in Egypt.
“I still nurture hope that one day I’ll go back as a freer man, as a freer journalist, to a freer country. I still nurture hope that one day I’ll see my children and my grandchildren living free in a free country where they won’t be judged on their ideas and intentions. I still nurture hope that one day, I’ll have my beautiful, beloved Egypt back,” he said, eliciting applause from the audience.
Agnes Callamard, director of the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and Information Project, spoke about the state of press freedom around the world. She remarked that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2013 prison census, more than half of the journalists in prison around the world at the end of last year were held on anti-state charges. Callamard said that, while “national security has been historically abused” to quell dissent and limit the press, a profusion of new laws have emerged over the past 10 to 15 years, including in democratic Western nations.
Panelist Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, agreed, adding that the message Egypt is sending in continuing to hold journalists in prison sets an example for the other countries in the Middle East.
“It’s all part of a bigger, very disturbing trend of the use of broad, sweeping, anti-terrorism laws to silence, to intimidate, or to lock up journalists,” he said.
The conversation later shifted to the efforts by Al Jazeera, CPJ, and other global entities calling for the detained journalists’ release. Among those efforts was Al Jazeera’s global day of action in late February, in which the organization began a campaign asking the public to show support by tweeting the hashtag “#FreeAJStaff,” and posting photos of themselves with tape covering their mouths. Shapiro asked the panel if there is any sign the Egyptian government is listening.
McGinniss felt that, while it is difficult to gauge the impact specific measures might have, the consequences of the detainment would be much worse without international outcry. “We will not stop pushing and we will not stop shining a light on this injustice. It’s when we turn that light and out when we stop talking that we’ve lost,” she said.
Mahoney said that while situations vary in different parts of the world, when issues like this play out on an international stage, some governments may relent because of ties with Western nations and the UN.
“A lot of governments do care about their international reputation,” he said, stating that mobilizing public opinion in countries Egypt has relations with may help in cases like this one. Mahoney added the most important way to engage with a repressive regime on these issues is by publicizing the situation and approaching the government with a credible report. “It’s amazing, the power of the letter,” he said.
As the discussion came to a close, Ghanem directed a final statement to the Egyptian government.
“We have a highly esteemed judiciary,” Ghanem said. “I appeal to them to leave the politics aside and try us by the law. I don’t think that’s much to ask.”