CAIRO: The trial of Al-Jazeera journalists for supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood of ousted president Mohamed Morsi resumes Wednesday in a case that has sparked a global outcry over muzzling of the press.
The high-profile trial is seen as a test of to what extent Egypt’s military-installed authorities are prepared to allow freedom of the press, with activists expressing concern about a return to autocratic rule in a country roiled by political turmoil.
The trial of the Qatar-based channel’s journalists also comes against the backdrop of strained ties between Cairo and Doha, which backed Morsi, deposed by the army in July, and the Brotherhood.
The journalists, including award-winning Australian reporter Peter Greste, are accused of supporting the Brotherhood and broadcasting false reports, after police shut down Al-Jazeera’s Cairo offices in the aftermath of Morsi’s overthrow.
Eight out of 20 defendants are in custody, with the rest on the run or abroad.
In the first hearing on Feb. 20, Greste said from the dock that justice would prevail.
Greste, a former BBC correspondent, and Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who worked with CNN before joining Al-Jazeera, were arrested in Cairo in December.
He is the only foreign defendant in custody. Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane and Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who was indicted even though she does not work for the channel, are abroad and being tried in absentia.
Prosecutors say the defendants falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war,” a possible reference to the broadcaster’s coverage of a government crackdown in which more than 1,400 people, mostly Morsi supporters, have been killed in street clashes.
The government has designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization,” although the group denies involvement in a spate of bombings since Morsi’s overthrow.
Al-Jazeera, which says only nine of the defendants are on its staff, has denied the charges.
‘Zero tolerance for dissent’
The trial has trigged an international outcry, drawing criticism from the United States, as well as press freedom groups and scores of journalists.
On Tuesday, media watchdog Reporters without Borders said it “deplores the government’s continuing violations of the fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed and protected in the new constitution.”
And Human Rights Watch has said the trial is part of a crackdown on dissent.
In recent months, the authorities “have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators and academics for peacefully expressing their views,” it said.
Greste himself, in a letter written from prison in January, described what he sees as a lack of press freedom in Egypt.
“The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices,” he wrote. “The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.”
Since Morsi’s ouster, foreign journalists have often faced mobs of angry Brotherhood opponents.
While none of the arrested Al-Jazeera journalists appear to have been working with press accreditation, the authorities say they welcome accredited foreign journalists.
Officials insist the channel has been working for the benefit of Qatar, which has hosted some members of the Brotherhood who fled the crackdown.
Al-Jazeera, especially its Arabic-language service, has often come under criticism in the past for allegedly biased reporting in the Arab world.