ARTICLE 19 condemns the guilty verdict handed to Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed, and Mohamed Fahmy in the strongest possible terms. After a highly politicized re-trial, the journalists were found guilty of “operating without a press license”, and “broadcasting false news.” On 29 August, they were sentenced to three years in prison. The verdict was a demonstration of disregard for freedom of expression on the part of the Egyptian courts.
ARTICLE 19 calls on Egyptian President Sisi to pardon all three journalists and free Mohamed and Fahmy. These journalists should never have been brought to trial and should not have been retried.
“It’s ironic that the judge said that these journalists had published false news that was harmful to Egypt when in fact nothing could have been more harmful to Egypt’s reputation than this trial,” commented Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director.
Furthermore, offences such as “publishing rumours” and “broadcasting false news” are vague and contrary to international standards on freedom of expression: such offences should not be on the statute books.
“Egypt should reform all laws which are in conflict with Egypt’s constitutional and international commitments to protect freedom of expression”; Hughes added.
The case began in December 2013, when Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were arrested and accused of publishing false news, and having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which had recently been declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government. In June 2014, Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mohamed was sentenced to an extra three years and a fine of 5, 000 Egyptian Pounds, for possession of a bullet casing. After an appeal, a re-trial was granted in January 2015, as the judge had failed to prove a connection between the journalists and the Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to legal irregularities and allegations of torture while in detention.
In February 2015, Greste was deported to Australia and the re-trial has continued in his absence. The verdict was initially expected on 30 July, but was postponed twice, finally being announced on Saturday.
The Al Jazeera journalists were not the only defendants; in January 2014, three students were arrested, accused of terrorism and added to the defendants list. One of the students, Sohaib Saad, disappeared while in custody in June 2015: security forces later released a video of him confessing. The other two, Khaled Abdel Rahman and Nora al-Banna, were acquitted.
The verdict forms only a part of the increasingly restrictive environment for expression in Egypt, with journalists at frontline: the space for dissent, and reporting about dissent in Egypt, is shrinking. The National Council for Human Rights recently detailed the scale of the human rights crisis in Egypt in its annual report in May 2015, stating that in Egypt, “the right to life had witnessed horrible deterioration’ in 2013 and 2014”. According to the official Egyptian human rights body, there were approximately 2,600 people killed in political violence that year[i] and thousands were arrested for political offences – official estimates run from 7,000 to 16,000, with unofficial estimates much higher.
Since 2013, Egypt has adopted new, repressive laws regarding protest and on terrorism which provide for numerous restrictions for journalistic work; in addition older, vague restrictions on freedom of expression continue to be used alongside them. Punishments are also getting much more severe than ever before.
In April 2015, journalist Walid Abd al-Raouf Shalabi was sentenced to death, and 17 other journalists and media workers were sentenced to life imprisonment, in a mass trial, for reporting on government attacks on demonstrators in 2013, when hundreds of people lost their lives during protests against the military takeover.[ii] Like the Al Jazeera journalists, those journalists sentenced to life imprisonment in April 2015 were accused of publishing ‘rumours’ and ‘false news’.
In June 2015, there were at least 18 journalists in jail, with some detainees reportedly afraid to call themselves journalists for fear of harsher punishment.[iii] Many journalists are in jail because they were covering protests, and were caught up in indiscriminate security sweeps.
ARTICLE 19 believes that there are credible allegations that detainees have been subjected to torture. In December 2014, the Egyptian Minister of the Interior acknowledged the existence of torture in Egyptian prisons when it told the National Council for Human Rights that many security officials had mistreated detainees.[iv] The Egyptian authorities should ensure that allegations of torture are thoroughly and impartially investigated and perpetrators held accountable.
“President Sisi acknowledged the terrible effect of this trial on Egypt’s reputation after the conclusion of the first trial in July 2014 – we hope that he takes the decision to pardon the journalists,” said Hughes.