Egypt’s renewed democracy has attacked one of the main principles of a democratic society, that of freedom of the Press.
Monday saw guilty verdicts given for three Al Jazeera journalists, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed with a further 11 journalists found guilty in absentia. The prosecution claimed the journalists had been reporting false news which was helping the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organisation which posed a threat to the national interest further claiming they provided equipment and information to 17 activists. These claims have been dismissed by the journalists and by Amnesty International who were monitoring the trial which has been marred with irregularities, with irrelevant evidence pieced together from reporting outside of Egypt, retraction of claims by a committee of “experts” from state television who claimed under cross examination they did not know whether the journalists work endangered national security. Unintelligible recordings and footage from interviews with political figures from across Egypt which demonstrated a balanced approach.
The Muslim Brotherhood rose to power following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. The party lead by Mohammed Morsi won the first free elections in Egypt. One year later President Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian army lead by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-sisi in a military takeover that was not refered to as a coup by other world leaders.
It is the coverage of Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood supporters after their overthrow that has landed these journalists in prison. Sadly they appear to be caught in the centre of a diplomatic fall out between Egypt and Al Jazeera’s base nation of Qatar. The Qatari government has been a keen supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood which has caused a rift between them and their Arab neighbours. Saudi Arabia has placed pressure on Qatar to deport Muslim Brotherhood leadership figures and preventing them from appearing on Al Jazeera. Qatar pledged to not harbour Saudi or Emirati nationals who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and would deport them to Britain or Turkey.
As the outrage has spread worldwide against the verdicts handed down, Abdel Fattah el-sis now President of Egypt has not responded positively. He argued that “We must respect judicial rulings and not criticise them even if others don’t understand this”. Now take this phrase out of context and I would agree with President Sisi, after all in a modern Presidential democracy there are three branches of government that are independent of each other; the executive, legislature and judiciary however there are things the President can do, if we compare it to America, the President has the right to pardon those convicted of crimes, they have the right to order their Attorney General to review the case yet Sis has decided not to act.
Though I described the three branches of government which are designed to be independent and keep checks and balances on each other there is a fourth branch, not of government but it serves as a check on the other three branches and that is the media. The media is there to inform, question and debate. It may be a politicians nightmare (especialy if you face someone like Jeremy Paxman)
Yet it is irreplaceable. Tony Benn argued that the role of the media was to “speak truth to power” Ask the questions politicians didn’t want to answer and keep asking them until they got an answer and not spin. These three Al Jazeera journalists were showing the other side of the Morsi overthrow story, the side that were protesting to keep their elected president in office. Presidents Sisi’s lack of intervention means the journalists now face a lengthy appeals process which may not get underway until October.
This case is the latest in Egypts crackdown of the press since Morsi’s overthrow. Egypt ranks as the third most dangerous place in the world for Journalists according to a report by the Committee to protect Journalists which was published in December 2013. In the second half of 2013 five journalists were killed with more than 80 detained according to Reporters Without Borders, ranking Egypt worse than 158 countries with regards to free press. A court in upper Egypt sentenced Bishoy Armia to five years in prison for “inciting sectarian strife” by depicting Christians as suffering from sectarian oppression.
Egypt, a democracy in its infancy needs to learn fast that a difference in opinion and challenges to government decisions are healthy for society, otherwise what was the point in ousting Mubarak from power to replace him with another politician who wants people to think the way he does and to not challenge the status quo.