Jailed For Journalism

Jesse Rosenfeld reports the news out of Egypt, where the same judge who sentenced 14 Muslim Brothers to death on flimsy-to-nonexistent evidence has handed down a harsh verdict against Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammad:

The three, who already have spent 177 days in jail, will now have to spend a total of seven years in prison. Baher Mohamed had three more years tacked onto his sentence because he had in his possession a bullet fired at a protest. Yet in this highly politicized trial the prosecution never presented any evidence to show that these journalists created “false news” or joined the banned Muslim Brotherhood as charged. Instead, prosecutors laid out a case based on broad conspiracy theories claiming that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite network is responsible for Middle East regional conflicts. …

The evident aim of the prosecution was not just to convict the reporters and a handful of students on trial with them, but to drive home the idea that al-Sisi’s government has a monopoly on truth. Prosecutors described the verdict and the sentencing as a “deterrent.”

The trial reads like an Orwell-Kafka collaboration:

[It] relied heavily on evidence culled from their personal possessions, but prosecutors never made any link between the innocuous-seeming material presented and the charges against the journalists. Making matters worse, in one instance, the defense lawyers were asked to pay a “fee” of about $150,000 to view evidence. …

Because journalists were allowed into the courtroom, there is a record of what was presented as evidence. It includes:

  • A video for the melancholy Gotye song “Somebody that I used to know” that came from a cell phone that allegedly belonged to one of the journalistsBoPLnZ5IUAE5jk-
  • Video footage of a press conference in Kenya that happened in 2013
  • A picture of Greste’s parents from his flash drive.
  • And this clearly manipulated picture of former armed forces chairman Mohammed Hussein Tantawi with Fahmy [seen to the right]

Journalists in Egypt have good reason to be afraid:

“It’s a warning to journalists that they could find themselves on trial and convicted for carrying out their duties,” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who has observed the trial for Amnesty International. Egypt’s prosecutor’s office issued a statement calling the ruling a “deterrent.” …

Most sobering for journalists, the trial also dissected the content of the Al Jazeera English team’s reporting. In his closing remarks, the prosecutor accused the journalists of selecting footage that would portray Egypt in a negative light. Among other examples of such ‘negative’ reporting, he said the three had reported on sexual harassment during demonstrations in Tahrir Square, an explosive issue that numerous foreign and local journalists have covered. In their defense, the journalists and their supporters argued: This was ordinary reporting, a journalistic portfolio similar to other top members of our profession.

Calling the verdict “a case study in all that is wrong with the Egyptian judicial system”, Bel Trew reminds us that the sorry state of press freedoms in Egypt is hardly news:

The Egyptian government has arrested over 40,000 people, according to the independent monitoring group WikiThawra, and sent thousands to trial since last summer’s military coup. Journalists haven’t been immune from this crackdown: Egypt was the third-deadliest country for journalists and among the top jailers of journalists in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). More than 65 journalists have been detained in Egypt since the coup, and 14 remain behind bars. …

The effect has been an unprecedented level of self-censorship by both the public and private media. “You can see many TV shows, awkwardly trying to stop their interviewees going too far in criticizing the army and the government,” Lotfy said. It was, he added, the worst press environment he had monitored in the last 30 years.

The ruling looked like a goodbye kiss for John Kerry, who had left Cairo hours earlier after announcing the US’ intent to restore military aid to the Sisi regime:

Kerry’s trip to Egypt was the clearest statement yet that President Barack Obama would rather work with al-Sisi than punish him, and his conciliatory words in Cairo before the verdict were not surprising, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official and Egypt expert now with the Brookings Institution. “I think the trajectory has been clear for a while.”

Keating can see why we have set aside our principles in Egypt:

It certainly seems like what’s changed here is not the policies of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government but American priorities elsewhere in the Middle East. Iraq is on the verge of national collapse, Israeli-Palestinian tensions are again reaching the boiling point, and Libya is seemingly consigned to dangerous instability for the foreseeable future. Stable-ish pro-American governments with competent militaries are in short supply in the region right now.

My guess is that, with Sisi’s message now clearly sent to foreign correspondents in Egypt that they’re not immune to the government crackdown, the Al-Jazeera reporters won’t actually serve their sentences. But beyond this particular case, it’s clear that concerns about the country’s democracy have, once again, has been moved to the backburner.

Doug Bandow rightly wants to cut off the regime:

Congress should end all aid. The administration should shut up about democracy.  The Pentagon should be left to cooperate with the Egyptian military on essential tasks, including access to the Suez Canal—after all, Egypt’s generals will want to continue purchasing newer and better toys, as well as acquiring spare parts for existing weapons. There is no good answer to Egypt.  No one knows how a Morsi presidency would have turned out, but skepticism of the Brotherhood in power is understandable, given the abuses of Islamists elsewhere.

Alas, as I point out in my new article on American Spectator online, “we do know how a Sisi presidency is likely to turn out: a rerun of Mubarak’s authoritarian and corrupt reign.”  Repressive rule isn’t even likely to deliver stability, since the Egyptian people will eventually tire of yet another government which delivers arbitrary arrests, brutal torture, and summary punishment rather than economic growth.

The best Washington can do is stay out. Subsidize no one, endorse no one. Work privately to advance important interests. Leave Egyptians to settle their fate.