We must stand up for free press in Egypt, everywhere

June 24, 2014 

Al-Jazeera took out a full-page ad on the back of the main section of The New York Times on Sunday – coveted and pricey real estate.

The ad didn’t say much. But for a few words, the page was blank. No, the Qatar-based satellite news channel was not trying to simply waste space. It was trying to make a point, and all that blank space did it well.

The lack of stories, facts, photos and the usual content of a news publication was the message itself: “This is what happens when you silence journalists.”

The ad was in support of three Al-Jazeera English journalists who – despite any actual evidence – were convicted in an Egyptian court Monday of conspiring to file false reports on behalf of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. All three received sentences of seven years in prison; one of the three had an extra three years tacked on for having the misfortune to pocket a spent bullet shell as a souvenir from the civil strife he’d been covering.

The convictions of the three well-respected journalists – Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, all of whom had previously worked for foreign news outlets such as The New York Times, CNN and the BBC – is an outrageous assault on the independent news media and, by extension, the people who depend on the media to keep them informed about what’s going on in their own countries. Political prosecution of the media is a big clue that human rights are not at the top of a government’s agenda.

It was more than a little ironic that the sentencing came the day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo and noted his impression that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was committed to re-evaluating human rights legislation. Embarrassing, too.

Kerry decried the convictions as “draconian,” and the White House condemned them Monday. But the kangaroo court trial of the three journalists had been going on for days before Kerry’s meeting and news of the guilty verdicts was a hard slap in the face of American diplomats. It was also a slap in the face to our ideals.

American journalists often take for granted the ease with which we do our jobs, thanks to the strong protections for free speech, open-records laws and a history of the judicial branch supporting the rights of a free press reaching back to the foundation of our nation. And while there are regular attempts to curtail access to government information, we don’t have to worry about being jailed for covering stories or criticizing our nation’s leaders.

At least, not yet. But it’s ever a possibility, one that keeps us vigilant as an industry and ready to pounce upon any transgression, whether it’s the failure of local police to turn over basic information about an officer-involved shooting or keeping secret how many oil trains are passing through the middle of Merced, Riverbank and Escalon.

To that end, we stand in support of the three Al-Jazeera journalists and call upon the global community to pressure President el-Sissi for an outright pardon of the journalists involved.

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