This week in a Cairo courtroom, over six months after they were initially arrested, three journalists working for Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera discovered their fate. It was not good news. Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent, Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian producer, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer, were convicted of belonging to, or assisting, a terrorist organisation, broadcasting false news and working without a permit, for which they received jail terms of seven years each, with Mohamed receiving an extra three years for possessing ammunition.
There is little doubt that these were fantastical charges, grains of truth (Mohamed was, in fact, in possession of a souvenir bullet) puffed up to absurd proportions – a process of reality creation helped along by the addition to the case of students with Islamist links. There is also little doubt that the Egyptian state’s antipathy towards Al-Jazeera and its Qatari backers, due to their support for the Egyptian state’s political enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, was a driving force behind the trial. Still, that is of little comfort to the journalists themselves: the verdict stands. And it does so as a further indictment of the state of democratic freedoms in Egypt.
And yet the international outrage prompted by the jailing of three journalists in Egypt does stick in the craw somewhat. After all, anyone even vaguely aware of what has been happening in Egypt since last July, when the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was deposed, and his supporters massacred, will know that the reign of the recently anointed new president, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been based on the often brutal suppression of not only dissent, but vague criticism. The jailing of three journalists ought to be a footnote to Sisi’s grand tyranny, from the hundreds of death sentences dished out to opponents, to the non-compliant now languishing in secret prisons. And yet these three journalists are now centre stage.
So, over the past few days, we’ve seen Western journalists, who have long been borderline indifferent to Sisi’s military dictatorship, wring their hands on social media and in commentaries. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, for instance, said the sentences were disgraceful, adding that ‘Egyptian euphoria after Mubarak’s fall feels a world away’. A commentator for the Guardian was convinced the jailing of the Al-Jazeera three shamed the Egyptian state: ‘No Al-Jazeera report could have damaged Egypt’s reputation as much as this sentence.’ And over the past 48 hours, countless Western journalists have been indulging in an ostentatious show of solidarity with Egypt’s cowed press corps by symbolically taping over their own mouths.
While Western journalists have been shaking their duct-taped heads at Sisi, Western politicians have been rushing forward to issue assorted condemnations. In the UK, prime minister David Cameron issued a statement declaring himself ‘appalled by the guilty verdicts’, noting that the trial ‘represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt’. US secretary of state John Kerry, shortly after promising Sisi that the US would restart sending aid to Egypt, also felt the need to point out that jailing journalists ’[flies] in the face of the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the real rule of law’. Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop helpfully suggested that ‘this kind of verdict does nothing to support Egypt’s claim to be on a transition to democracy’.