Comment and Analysis

Why the case against Al-Jazeera is about journalism not the network

Azad Essa

Al-Jazeera is only one part of a puzzle of the growing restrictions on the freedom of expression of ordinary Egyptians, writes Azad Essa.

Al Jazeera correspondent for Jakarta Step Vaessen (R) and other journalists hold a rally in Jakarta on Thursday as part of a global protest to demand the release of detained Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt. (AFP)

The Egyptian government has waged a campaign of intimidation and repression on the Al Jazeera Network. Since June last year, 19 Al Jazeera staff members have been detained and intimidated by Egyptian forces.

Today, four remain in custody. Abdullah Elshamy, working for the Arabic channel, has been held since August. He is on the fifth week of a hunger strike. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, working for the English channel, have been locked up since December.

The charges? According to Egyptian government, my colleagues were conspiring with a terrorist group and broadcasting false images of a "civil war that raises alarms about the state's collapse".

In what can only be indicative of a war on journalists in Egypt, the treatment of Al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt in many ways reflects the ambivalent gains of the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

Some argue that the detention of Al-Jazeera journalists had received too much world attention, detracting from the experience of other journalists constrained by Egyptian authorities. The international attention that has riveted on the detention and imprisonment of my colleagues over the past few weeks is almost certainly credit to the length and breath of the Al-Jazeera brand.

Scapegoat
It is also true that observers are especially interested in the fate of Al-Jazeera in Egypt since we are perceived to be inordinately sympathetic to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. But in an atmosphere where only one side of the story has now become the status quo, covering the other side has become a scapegoat for the Egyptian government to claim bias.

We are most certainly not the only media organisation or the only journalists to be targeted over the past three years, and more specifically since the military ousted former president Mohamed Morsi in a coup on July 3 2013.

For instance, in October 2013, the Egyptian government blacklisted the UK's Guardian paper, describing it as "misled media". In February this year, Reuters was accused by a rights group of "threatening national security" by publishing a tweet linked to a militant group.

Al-Jazeera, along with a profusion of citizen journalism on the web and social media platforms, was celebrated for keeping the world abreast of the incredible developments of a purported peoples' revolution in Tahrir Square in 2011. The current attack on Al-Jazeera however tells a tale of a state working against the gains of a dirty democratic process. It is a tawdry display of a state clamping down on any hint of dissent.

In a letter smuggled out from his cell in the Tora prison in Egypt, our award winning correspondent Peter Greste described the prisons as "overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government".

"[Mohamed] Fahmy and Baher [Mohamed] have been accused of being Muslim Brotherhood members, So they are being held in the far more draconian "Scorpion prison" built for convicted terrorists," Greste wrote.

Silenced
In truth, any semblance of critical commentary has been silenced. Satirists have been pulled off air, the mobile operator Vodafone has been charged with carrying coded messages on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood; pretty much any criticism of the current military rule has been labelled pas permis.

According to the New York based Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) at least 45 journalists have been assaulted, and more than 44 others have been detained in Egypt since July last year.

"Since 1992, CPJ has documented the deaths of 10 journalists for their work in Egypt – nine of them since anti-government protests began in 2011," the organisation says. Six of these deaths were recorded in 2013 alone.

Egypt has traditionally been a difficult country to operate as a journalist. Under Hosni Mubarak, the country's president for almost three decades, the media were forced to exist under the shadow of harassment and imprisonment.

Editors were often charged with "insulting the president" or "insulting public institutions". The evidence however suggests conditions were never as bad as they currently are. One Egyptian colleague who has been advised not to return home in fear of being arrested told me that "this is Egypt's worst period for freedom of speech and expression since Abdel Nasser's era in the 1950s".

Al-Jazeera is only one part of a puzzle of the acute political polarisation and mob violence restricting the freedom of expression of ordinary Egyptians daily.

And though thousands of journalists from Nairobi, London and New York taped their mouths and held up placards with the #FreeAJStaff over the past few weeks in a bid to raise more awareness of our plight in the country, we are certainly not the story here.

The attacks on Al-Jazeera journalists, and indeed the charges against all those voicing criticism of the current Egyptian government, are only a smoke-screen in a larger story of a country teetering on the brink of a long-term military dictatorship.

Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera covering Sub-Saharan Africa. He is also the author of Zuma's Bastard (Two Dogs Books) @azadessa

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