CAIRO, Egypt—Journalism itself was on trial in a Cairo courtroom Monday, where staff members of the Al Jazeera network stand accused of spreading false news and joining a terrorist organization.
The defendants watched from within a steel-mesh cage in what often seemed a grim scene from Kafka or the theater of the absurd. Peter Greste, an Australian who formerly reported for the BBC, Mohammad Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian who is Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief, and producer Baher Mohammad were damned by the prosecutors for having, yes, video cameras and editing equipment and satellite phones.
But as ridiculous as the scene and the charges seemed, nobody was laughing. In another proceeding earlier in the day, in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya, a judge sentenced 529 people to death on terrorism charges that were almost as vague.
In the Al Jazeera trial, part of the prosecution’s case hinges on a report by Ahmed Ahmed Ali, a technician from Egyptian state television, who studied the seized equipment. “Tell me one thing in the report that threatens national security,” Fahmy’s lawyer asked him repeatedly. Ali said he couldn’t recall, and kept referring the defense to the report.
Much of the examination and cross-examination focused on the nature of editing for television news, as if juxtaposing dramatic images were a criminal act. “The discussion of montages clearly demonstrates they don’t understand what we do,” Fahmy told reporters shouting questions to the journalists.
Defiant and in good spirits even after 86 days in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison, the defendants feel the prosecution is making their case for them and exposing their detention as baseless. Monday’s hearing “was good for us,” said Greste. “There isn’t a shred of evidence.”
But for a military-installed regime determined to bring iron-fisted order to Egypt, that may make little difference. The court in Minya handed down those death sentences to 529 supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood after a single hearing. With the majority tried in absentia, only 147 of those accused of involvement in clashes that killed one security force officer were present to hear the largest capital punishment verdict in modern Egyptian history.
In the Al Jazeera case, 20 people are charged altogether, with many of them tried in absentia as well. And some in the dock with the journalists are students unconnected to the network. They say the government is trying to punish them for protests that continue on university campuses.
As Al Jazeera’s Fahmy listened to the proceedings he clung to the prisoner’s cage with one hand. His right arm was injured just prior to his arrest and has not gotten adequate treatment in prison. It now dangles uselessly at his side. Fahmy says that for most of his time in jail he was kept in a crowded cell 23 hours a day, sleeping on the floor as best he could. Only recently was he put in with Greste and Mohammad.
The three say there have seen slight improvements in conditions since a letter of sympathy was sent from Egyptian President Adly Mansour to Fahmy and Greste’s families in an apparent effort to improve the government’s image. Fahmy was taken to hospital over the weekend for x-rays, and magazines are now being delivered to their cell.
But the trial has sent a chill through the journalistic community, which is no doubt part of its purpose. Foreign reporters are uncertain what the state will permit them to say in post-coup Egypt while local reporters face more intense repression and less protection.
“It makes it more dangerous to report and you feel like no one is exempt from arrest and repression,” says correspondent for The Nation Magazine and Democracy Now!, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is campaigning for the release of the Al Jazeera staff.
As we stand outside the prison, looking at the road in that is lined with tanks and heavily armed Central Security Forces, Kouddous says the trial is a serious escalation against the press in a climate that has already seen reporters picked up in mass arrests, TV networks closed down and media offices raided.
“This is the first time that I can recall that journalists were specifically targeted for their work,” he says, as families bringing food and necessities to incarcerated loved ones line up across the street. “According to Egyptian authorities, journalism can be a form of terrorism.”
The Al Jazeera trial resumes on March 31.