Perhaps it is fitting that the day Al Jazeera Media Network called a roundtable with media and human rights experts in Vienna to discuss press freedom, the Egyptian State Council banned one of the station’s channels from broadcasting on the government-controlled satellite feed.
The meeting, one of six being hosted by the network around the world, was convened on Wednesday to highlight Egypt’s policies and practices that affect journalists’ ability to cover developments in the country independently and without fear of retaliation. They will result in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Egyptian government, and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
This is all in the name of keeping up the pressure on Egypt to free Al Jazeera’s imprisoned journalists and work for improved conditions for all media in the country.
In late June, three Al Jazeera English staffers, Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, were sentenced to seven years in Egyptian prison, found guilty on charges of supporting terrorism for quoting the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which had been governing Egypt prior to its overthrow (Mohamed got three extra years for “possession of a weapon,” namely a single spent bullet casing he had recovered from a street protest as a souvenir). Although President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi publicly expressed “disappointment” over the sentences, which drew international condemnation, he did not pardon the men.
“[Sisi] said that because of the international pressure. That is one reason why we need to keep it going,” Mostefa Souag, Al Jazeera Media Network’s acting director general, said in an interview after the Vienna meeting, which was closed to the press. “We should ask all our colleagues in the media to keep writing about these issues. Not about Al Jazeera only, but the right of journalists to do their job and write in a peaceful and safe environment.”
An appeal submitted by the journalists’ lawyers could take months, so Al Jazeera is using that time to keep up that pressure, including holding the roundtables, organized with the help of Vienna-based International Press Institute. In addition to Vienna, they will be held over the next few months in Geneva, Chicago, Sydney, Doha and Johannesburg. Government officials, university professors, media rights activists and journalists are invited to speak.
After a short era of openness after the Arab Spring, the advent of military rule brought a crackdown that some say exceeds the repressive conditions of the pre-Tahrir government. Since the military took power a year ago, seven journalists have been killed in Egypt, dozens wounded, and more than 50 arbitrarily detained without trial, IPI says. Souag said that the Al Jazeera reporters have gotten more attention because they worked for an international organization, but Egyptian journalists have far more difficulties.
“The coup d’état in Egypt last year—what happened was pure aggression. It put us back decades,” Souag said. “Actually its worse than the time of Mubarak or Sadat.”
While an official from the Austrian Foreign Ministry attended the roundtable, no one from the Egyptian government did.* Nor were journalists. Souag said the closed-door session, which included about 20 people, allowed privacy to Egyptian journalists, who may fear retaliation upon their return to their homeland.
Souag said that the meeting in Vienna included discussion on ways to promote media freedoms around the world and ways to teach journalists how to behave in hostile environments. One Egyptian journalist who was asked to speak there told me he reported on how much more difficult it to do his job nowadays.
But the session seemed to touch a raw nerve somewhere. Demonstrators, probably Egyptian students, IPI organizers said, gathered outside the conference in Vienna to protest the meeting. Police had told IPI to expect about 100. According to people there, only nine showed up.
*The story has been updated to reflect the fact that, though the Egyptian Ambassador to Austria was invited, he did not attend.Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.