Make your protest 'noisy and sustained' #solidarity
Guest speakers at the NUJ meeting - © Jess Hurd
1 July 2014
A "noisy and sustained protest" was called for as journalists met a week after the jailing of three Al Jazeera journalists, to show their solidarity and to discuss how to ratchet up an international campaign to have them set free.
The meeting heard that Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, who received a sentence of seven years from a Cairo court, and Baher Mohamed, who was given an additional three years, are all highly respected journalists. The charges against them, including aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, were trumped up and without a shred of evidence.
The object was to suppress press freedom in Egypt. Fellow journalists Alaa Bayoumi, Anas Abdel-Wahab Khalawi Hasan, Khaleel Aly Khaleel Bahnasy, Mohamed Fawzi, Dominic Kane, Rena Netjes and Sue Turton were sentenced to 10 years in absentia.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, opened the meeting saying that she had been stunned when she heard the sentences and was now concerned that they were already having an impact on journalism. The BBC's Jeremy Bowen admitted that his team decided not to interview a member of the Muslim Brotherhood because they thought it would be too dangerous.
Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4's international editor, said:
"I love Egypt and I love reporting in Egypt, but I can't tell you just how downcast I am by the imprisonment of the Al Jazeera journalists."
She said there had not been one single piece of concrete evidence against the men, who were pawns in an international game between Qatar – the Royal Family are the owners of Al Jazeera – and Egypt. But, she said:
"As journalists we cannot boycott Egypt, even though it is very dangerous to work there."
She suggested instead a boycott of Egyptian tourism.
Mick Hodgkin, Father of the Chapel at Al Jazeera English, said he had worked with Peter Greste, a "nice and talented guy". He said:
"To make out that he was a closet Muslim Brotherhood follower is patently absurd. What it is about is keeping the media under the cosh and making sure we cannot do our job."
Peter Greste said to his brothers after the verdict (he was not allowed written message):
"I know that our freedom, and more importantly the freedom of Egypt's press, will never come without noisy, sustained pressure from individuals, human rights groups, governments and anyone who understands the fundamental importance of a free press to Egypt's fledgling democracy."
Mick Hodgkin said that colleagues who knew Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian and senior producer working in Cairo who previously worked for the New York Times and CNN, said he was "nothing more and nothing less than an advocate of press freedom".
He had prepared a set of tweets, full of love and not bitterness, in anticipation of his release. Another colleague said of Baher Mohammed, an Egyptian, that he was a totally professional journalist.
"I never knew what his personal views of events were. He never revealed his politics."
Barbara Serra, a presenter and correspondent at Al Jazeera, said she had been touched by the support of other journalists from rival organisations when the news of the sentences was heard. But, she said, she feared that it had not been a big story globally. She said:
"London is the capital of international journalism. All the major networks have offices here and we should be leading the pack in making sure the story does not fade. We should be making links with journalist unions in Europe to join the campaign and put pressure on the international community to act."
Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy was released from prison in June on medical grounds, ending almost a year of imprisonment without charge. He had been on hunger strike for five months, days after being arrested for covering the violent dispersal of sit-ins by supporters of deposed president Morsi. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) had lobbied hard for his release.
Jim Boumelha, president of the IFJ, said:
"The jailing of the Al Jazeera journalists needed to be seen in the context of a long history of press suppression in the country."
He said his organisation had been involved for many years in Egypt, a country where thousands of journalists had been assaulted and thrown into prison from the days of Mubarak.
Hopes for a free press after the overthrow of the dictator during the Arab Spring were short-lived. Under Morsi, media organisations were shut down, journalists threatened and jailed. Since Morsi's overthrow by Sisi, the former army chief and now president, more than 65 journalists have been arrested, with most being let free. Sisi has refused to intervene in the case of the Al Jazeera journalists, saying:
"We must respect judicial rulings and not criticise them, even if others do not understand this."
Jim Boumelha said that the see-sawing political situation in Egypt had led to a polarised media, at odds with itself, and under constant threat from the authorities.
Jeremy Corbyn MP has been a long-standing campaigner for press freedom in Egypt. In February he joined Michelle Stanistreet in a meeting with Ashraf El Kholy, the Egyptian ambassador in London, to lobby on behalf of the Al Jazeera journalists and the attacks on the Egyptian press.
He praised the standard of reporting at Al Jazeera.
"This is what General Sisi does not want. He does not want independent journalists putting what is going on in his country under the spotlight. He knows that he doesn't have to arrest all reporters. By arresting such high profile journalists, he knows that self-censorship will happen, as people fear for their personal security.
"Journalists are essential to a democratic society and that is why we have to protest at what is happening and what is happening in other countries such as Mexico and Colombia."
He said he would be trying to force debate on the subject in Parliament.
"If the US can turn up and offer a lot of military aid, then Sisi knows he can get away with it. It is our job – and I am a member of the NUJ – to make as much noise as possible and stand together so we can get our colleagues freed."