A group of nearly 30 Columbia Journalism School faculty members penned a letter on Wednesday to Egypt’s acting president, Adly Mansour, protesting the incarceration of several Al Jazeera English journalists who have been detained in Egypt since late December.
The letter, initiated by Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia, and signed by Dean Steve Coll, among others, calls for the release of journalists Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Baher Mohammed, along with all other news-gatherers currently imprisoned in Egypt. The three were arrested on December 29, along with cameraman Mohamed Fawzy, who was released two days later. A fourth journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, a correspondent for Al Jazeera Arabic, remains in prison since his arrest in August.
The reporters face charges including “spreading false news” and “holding illegal meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood.” They have pleaded not guilty and will face trial again in Cairo on March 5.
Columbia’s faculty states that the charges “in effect criminalize universally recognized standards for professional journalism practice.”
“As teachers of journalism students from around the world,” the letter continues, “we recognize that Egyptian civil society is in a time of debate and transition, but such times are precisely when the mission of independent journalism is most relevant. Journalism is not terrorism.”
A global day of action in support of the detained journalists is planned for Thursday, February 27. Thousands of Twitter users have already begun using the hashtag #FreeAJStaff to show their support. The letter from the J-school faculty is reprinted below.
February 26, 2014
His Excellency Adly Mahmoud Mansour
Office of the President
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt
Dear President Mansour:
As faculty members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, we write to protest the continuing detention of, and criminal proceedings directed against, reporters, producers and other news professionals of Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English.
In 2011, in recognition of its excellence and integrity, the faculty of our school bestowed the Columbia Journalism Award upon Al Jazeera English. This award is given annually to a single organization for practicing “singular journalism in the public interest.” Today we are particularly alarmed at the politically-motivated criminal prosecution of this widely-respected network’s three staffers Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohammed—veteran news professionals and citizens of three nations—as well as the other Al Jazeera and independent journalists facing charges in this case.
The charges against Al Jazeera/Al Jazeera English staff—such as “holding illegal meetings” with the Muslim Brotherhood—in effect criminalize universally-recognized standards for professional journalism practice, which require that all sides in public disputes and controversies be reported. As teachers of journalism students from around the world, we recognize that Egyptian civil society is in a time of debate and transition, but such times are precisely when the mission of independent journalism is most relevant. Journalism is not terrorism. Neither is dissent whether printed or online.
We also condemn the harsh conditions under which the Al Jazeera English team are being held, described in a letter from Mr. Greste as confining his fellow prisoners “24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul- destroying tedium.” We note that Mr. Fahmy has been denied medical treatment for a shoulder injury sustained during his arrest, although he requested such treatment as recently as his bail hearing last week.
We urge your Government and the Office of Public Prosecutor to drop this tainted proceeding, and to free all journalists from Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English, along with any other news-gatherers now in custody.
Professor of Professional Practice & Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Dean & Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism
CBS Professor of Professional Practice in International Journalism
Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism & Director, Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism
Godfrey Lowell Cabot Professor of Journalism
Professor & Chair, PhD Program
H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism & Director, Spencer Fellowship Program