CAIRO, Egypt—These are deeply uncertain times for journalists in Egypt. On Wednesday, the country’s chief prosecutor general leveled a raft of criminal charges against 20 Al Jazeera journalists, some of them in absentia, accusing them of joining a “terrorist group,” broadcasting false news, and distorting Egypt’s image abroad.
Part of what alarms press freedom advocates is that the accusations appear to hinge on the content of Al Jazeera’s reporting. The journalists, who deny the charges, face years in prison if convicted. In response to the indictments, Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement, “This attempt to criminalize legitimate journalistic work is what distorts Egypt’s image abroad.”
The arrest and now the prosecution of prominent journalists, along with a growing concern over crowd violence against media workers, has begun to foment a sense of fear among many attempting to report on Egypt’s ongoing upheaval.
“This is beginning to creep on everyone working in Egypt, this fear. I also have this sense of concern and this over-thinking every time I go to a protest,” said photojournalist Mosa’ab Elshamy, whose brother Abdullah is an Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent detained in separate circumstances. “This is the risk that everyone in general, but photojournalists in particular, are afraid of.”
The most high-profile case to date is that of thee three journalists for Al Jazeera English, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, and Australian correspondent Peter Greste, who were arrested during a raid on the hotel suite they used as a studio in late December. The three have been referred to as the “Marriott Cell.”
Confusion also surrounds the new indictments, as no definitive list of defendants has been released. In a statement, Al Jazeera said it had “no knowledge of other people apparently being pursued by the authorities.” The network currently has no journalists reporting in the country.
A partial list leaked to the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr included what appeared to be garbled English names including “Dominic Laurence” and “Susane Melanie,” identified as British citizens, and “Johanna Ideniette,” listed as a Dutch citizen.
The two British citizens named are believed to be correspondents Dominic Kane and Sue Turton, both of whom are outside of Egypt. In an email, Turton said, “On legal advice I’m not saying anything until the names are officially released.” Kane did not respond to an email inquiry.
Though each of the various Al Jazeera channels airs separate content and has its own editorial leadership and tone, the network as a whole is widely regarded in Egypt as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Representatives of Al Jazeera English rejected both the suggestion of partiality and the prosecutors’ charges.
“These are just journalists covering a wide range of stories in Cairo and making sure their stories were balanced,” said AJE correspondent Bernard Smith, who previously reported in Egypt.” He said the accusation that Mohamed, Fahmy, and Greste, the trio who have been detained since December, “manipulated pictures” was “nonsense.” But because two of the detainees are foreign nationals with established careers in the international media, last week’s indictments have raised particular alarm among foreign journalists in Egypt.
Foreign correspondents are concerned that the case could establish a precedent of criminalizing ordinary journalistic contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government recently designated a terrorist organization. After the military deposed Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in July, the new government launched a clampdown on the Islamist group and other political opponents, killing more than 1,000 and arresting thousands of others.
In an attempt to reassure international journalists, Egypt’s State Information Service issued a statement on Thursday, saying that “Egyptian law does not criminalize mere contact with or prior knowing of anyone accused of committing a crime or any person imprisoned pending a case.” The statement however contained that such contact is legal unless such contact constitutes “involvement in committing the crime by means of assisting, inciting or prior agreement.”
Not everyone was reassured. Guardian correspondent Patrick Kingsley quipped on Twitter, “Thinking is ok, as long as your thoughts are in line with a set of rules we make up as we go along.”
Another journalist, Al Jazeera Arabic West Africa correspondent Abdullah Elshamy, is also detained, but was not among those charged last week, meaning that his case remains in a sort of judicial limbo. Detained in August while covering the government crackdown on protesters loyal to deposed president Mohamed Morsi, he has been neither charged nor tried. His detention was renewed last week for another period of 45 days. A fifth Al Jazeera journalist, Mohammed Badr of the network’s Egypt-focused channel Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, has also been held since last summer. But on Sunday Badr was acquitted along with 61 pro-Morsi protesters.
Elshamy’s brother, Mosa’ab, a young Egyptian photojournalist, went to visit him in Cairo’s Tora prison on Tuesday. Elshamy is on hunger strike protesting his detention. He was in good spirits, his brother said, but after eight days without food, he had trouble focusing. The prison authorities
moved him tothreatened him with solitary confinement, in apparent retribution for the hunger strike. “It’s very concerning and it’s frightening, but I understand this is a step he had to take,” Mosa’ab Elshamy said of the hunger strike. “He’s grown tired of the absurdity of detention, and he wants to put an end to it.”
He emerged from the prison a few hours later only to learn that another of his brothers, Mohamed, a photojournalist for Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, had been detained by police outside his office in downtown Cairo. Police searching his backpack found a gas mask and camera—standard tools for news photographers in Cairo—and took him into custody. Luckily, he was released the same day.
Rights advocates in Egypt characterized the indictments as a continuation of the government’s ongoing clampdown. “There is a severe, ongoing campaign against freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. “It’s not just [a campaign] against journalists who talk about the violence against the Brotherhood. It’s also about anyone who talks about human right violations.”
Meanwhile, four Al Jazeera journalists—three from the “Marriot Cell” and ElShamy—face an ongoing prison ordeal. Mohamed Fahmy is held in the maximum security wing of Tora Prison, in solitary confinement, adjacent to cells holding accused anti-government militants. “We are extremely disappointed and devastated that they are reasserting the same ridiculous accusations, which are completely false,” said Mohamed Fahmy’s brother, Adel. “We’re hoping the truth will prevail. It’s a nightmare, literally a nightmare for all of us as his family.”
“We are witnesses of freedom,” Abdullah Elshamy declared in a letter explaining his hunger strike. The message was written from prison and posted online by his family last week. “Nothing will break my will or dignity.”