It began with murmuring. Someone sobbed. Then the courtroom melted into a chaos of shouting and people climbing over the rows of wooden benches.
That was the reaction on Monday after an Egyptian judge sentenced a trio of journalists from Al Jazeera to seven to 10 years in prison. It’s a verdict sure to give pause to every journalist working in Egypt.
Mohamed Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen and former CNN journalist, was sentenced to seven years in prison alongside Peter Greste, an Australian and former BBC correspondent. Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed was sentenced to 10 years. Four students and activists tried in the same case were also handed seven-year terms. The group, led away after the verdict before they could speak, stood accused of broadcasting false news and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian state has declared a terrorist organization.
The judge also sentenced three foreign journalists to 10-year prison terms in absentia. British Al Jazeera English journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane were outside of the country when their colleagues were arrested last December. Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who has never worked for Al Jazeera, left Egypt after officials misspelled her name in a document listing the indictments.
“Everything is wrong with this system,” Mohamed Fahmy’s brother, Adel Fahmy, told reporters in a chaotic courtroom moments after the verdict. Inside the defendants’ cage, students began chanting and singing before guards removed them. “Brother, you are free behind those bars,” the song goes. “Brother, you are free in those chains.”
The ruling draws attention to the Egyptian government’s sweeping political crackdown in the wake of the Egyptian military’s removal of elected president Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, in July 2013. Since then, more than 20,000 people have been detained, including journalists and activists associated with the 2011 uprising that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The media freedoms won in the 2011 revolution was one casualty of the clampdown. Morsi has used the instruments of state to harass and intimidate journalists, and the space for critical reporting has shrunken since his ouster. Following the military takeover, Islamist-leaning broadcasters and newspapers were shuttered, and self-censorship became a norm in other Egyptian media. “
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 15 journalists are currently jailed in Egypt. A fourth Al Jazeera Journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, was arrested last August released last week after spending more than 100 days on hunger strike.
“It’s a warning to journalists that they could find themselves on trial and convicted for carrying out their duties,” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who has observed the trial for Amnesty International. Egypt’s prosecutor’s office issued a statement calling the ruling a “deterrent.”
Fahmy, Greste, and Mohamed were arrested from their room in Cairo’s Marriott hotel in late December. Branded the “Marriott cell” in Egypt’s press, they were indicted and tried in a series of 12 courtroom sessions since February. The trial unfolded in a spectacle worthy of Kafka, with prosecutors playing footage of a news conference in Kenya, a report on sheep farming, and a recording of the popular tune, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” by the Australian musician Gotye, all presented as evidence.
Most sobering for journalists, the trial also dissected the content of the Al Jazeera English team’s reporting. In his closing remarks, the prosecutor accused the journalists of selecting footage that would portray Egypt in a negative light. Among other examples of such ‘negative’ reporting, he said the three had reported on sexual harassment during demonstrations in Tahrir Square, an explosive issue that numerous foreign and local journalists have covered.
In their defense, the journalists and their supporters argued: This was ordinary reporting, a journalistic portfolio similar to other top members of our profession.
“Not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them. At no point during the long drawn out ‘trial’ did the absurd allegations stand up to scrutiny,” said Al Anstey, the managing director of Al Jazeera English, in a statement. “There were many moments during the hearings where in any other court of law, the trial would be thrown out.”
Al Jazeera is no longer operating in the country.
“As a friend I feel incredibly sad, as a journalist I’m scared, as an Egyptian I’m ashamed,” said Sherine Tadros, a journalist for Sky News and former Al Jazeera English correspondent, in a post on Twitter.
Issued a day after a high-profile visit to Cairo by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the pre-scheduled verdict could also result in discomfort for the US government, which recently decided to fully restore $650 million in military aid partly withheld in the aftermath the armed forces’ ouster of Morsi last year. The funds were the first installment of an annual $1.3 billion in aid.