Al Jazeera journalists attend trial on World Press Freedom Day
Al-Jazeera bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy (L) speaks to judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata (R) on May3 - AFP/Mohamed El-Shahed

CAIRO: Coinciding with the World Day for Press Freedom, Cairo Criminal Court adjourned Saturday the case of three Al-Jazeera English journalists to an eighth trial session on May 15, and renewed the remand of the news network’s journalist Abdullah Elshamy for 45 days.

Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed of Al-Jazeera English have been detained since December. Elshamy, who works at Al-Jazeera Arabic, has been in pre-trial detention since August, and on a hunger strike for over 100 days.

“Overall, perhaps nowhere did press freedom decline more dramatically in 2013 than in polarized Egypt. This is why it was on our Risk List for last year,” Sherif Mansour, the MENA Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told The Cairo Post.

Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Qatari-owned Al Jazeera has been seen as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, and relations between Cairo and Doha have deteriorated. The Brotherhood was designated as a terrorist organization last year, and many of its leaders have been arrested for inciting violence.

Egypt is the third deadliest country for journalists, after Syria and Iraq, Mansour said, attributing this to the death of six journalists since July.

A climate of “self-censorship” has taken root in Egypt, in addition to “state-sponsored censorship,” and a “media vilification campaign” against independent and foreign journalists, Mansour added.

Three Al-Jazeera English journalists behind bars

Jailed Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian-Canadian producer at Al Jazeera English, requested the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom (CCWPF) to donate his U.S. $2,000 Press Freedom Award to the family of late reporter Mayada Ashraf, according to a Saturday statement by the CCWPF.

Fahmy was detained alongside Al-Jazeera English’s Australian reporter Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed on Dec. 29, 2013, on charges of “broadcasting false news that is detrimental to public security,” and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some videos seized in the journalists’ hotel rooms was thrown out of evidence after they were broadcast in the courtoom on April 10; the videos contained footage of a BBC documentary on Somalia, as well as clips from Sky News Arabic. Other videos shown in court on April 22 show the team conducting interviews with Brotherhood leaders.

Fahmy and Mohamed are accused of being members of the Brotherhood, which was declared a “terrorist organization” by the Egyptian government on Dec. 25, 2013.

The case, whose first court session was on Feb. 20, includes 20 people, 12 of whom are being tried in absentia. Two British reporters and one Dutch journalist are among the 12, but fled the country before the case was brought to court, according to The Guardian.

“[W]hen the Egyptian government declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be “terrorist organization,” it knocked the middle ground out of the discourse,” Greste wrote in a letter smuggled out of his cell in Tora Prison in January.

“We were not alone in our reporting, but our arrest has served as a chilling warning to others of where the middle is here,” Greste wrote in another article published from prison on Al-Jazeera’s blog.

The BBC published an open letter to the Egyptian authorities Feb. 18, confirming Greste’s professionalism and impartiality, and saying that Egypt is “profoundly mistaken in [its] actions.” Greste had previously worked as a freelancer for Reuters TV and the BBC.

“[W]e think Egypt’s move is deeply damaging to the future of impartial journalism in the country and that its actions are unjust, and unacceptable,” said the letter, also signed by officials from Reuters, Sky, NBC News, ABC News and ITN.

 On hunger strike, Abdullah Elshamy in pre-trial detention for months

Al-Jazeera Arabic reporter Abdullah Elshami was detained on Aug. 14 while covering the dispersal of Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in in a case that involves hundreds of others.

There is no clear indictment for Elshami, but Egyptian media reported that defendants in this case face charges of attempted murder, illegal assembly, blocking roads and other charges.

Elshami’s case has not been brought before a judge yet, but Egyptian law allows detention pending investigations for up to two years.

Elshami has been on a hunger strike since Jan. 21.

“I chose to be on hunger strike to send a few messages: one to journalists who choose to falsify the facts and cover up for the violations of freedoms and media, the other to the Egyptian junta that I do not fear losing my life in my struggle for freedom,” Elshamy wrote in a smuggled letter posted on Facebook by his brother Mosa’ab, a freelance photojournalist, on Jan. 27.

He added that he has not committed “any offense” against a human being, nor has he participated in the “falsification of anyone’s consciousness,” and that he takes pride in his work in Al-Jazeera.

“I do not belong to any group or ideology. I belong to my conscience and my humanity, and I do not take interest in what is been said in the local media about me or my colleagues,” Elshamy wrote.

Elshamy permitted himself only water, milk, unsweetened juice and two dates per day for 14 days, and then he cut out the dates, according to a statement by Al-Jazeera’s press office April 30.

He eliminated milk by the end of February and has survived only on water since March 16, the press office said. By April 21, he lost 34 kilograms, the press office added.

Gehad Khaled, Elshamy’s wife, joined the hunger strike on March 14 to “experience what her husband is going through,” according to a post on her Facebook page.

“[The hunger strike] really is not easy, I personally do not know how long I can endure it,” Khaled said.

She added that she respects every human who “does not surrender to imprisonment and decides to fight in his own way, even if his means to battle are just empty intestines against injustice.”

International arbitration

Al-Jazeera formally notified the Egyptian government that it would file a case for international arbitration in six months if Egypt failed to settle the dispute on “violating” the 1999 bilateral investment agreement between Egypt and Qatar, Al-Jazeera said in a statement on April 28.

The total financial loss inflicted on Al-Jazeera by the Egyptian authorities is estimated to be over U.S. $150 million, the statement said, adding that Al-Jazeera demands compensation for these losses and for the degrading treatment of Al-Jazeera and its staff in line with their legal rights.

“Security authorities raided the offices of [Al-Jazeera] in Egypt and confiscated its equipment. This was accompanied by harassment and even arrest and pre-trial detention for a large number of Al-Jazeera’s journalists, without indictment or with fabricated charges,” the statement said.

Egyptian authorities released Al-Jazeera’s cameraman Mohamed Badr on Feb. 5, after a court acquitted him on Feb 2. He had been detained for over six months since July 15, while he was covering protests against Morsi’s overthrow in Ramses Street in Downtown Cairo. The prosecution had charged him with committing acts of violence and carrying weapons.

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