Egyptian authorities said last week that they referred 20 Al Jazeera English journalists — four foreign and 16 local — to criminal court for their alleged membership in and aid to the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood.
Such a massive indictment of journalists working for an international media outlet is unprecedented, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has monitored and advocated press freedom around the world since 1981. But it is not surprising, given the military-led government’s escalating crackdown on the press and its history of using the justice system as a tool.
Last year, Egypt was among the top 10 jailers of journalists and was the third-deadliest country for the media, the committee reported. Currently, 10 journalists are behind bars. Five have been killed since July, with the government or military suspected of involvement in at least four of the deaths. These attacks are part of a coordinated strategy by the military-led government to bring back Mubarak-era repression, using the legal system to stifle critical voices.
Well before Mohammed Morsi was ousted from the presidency, the Egyptian military developed a plan to pressure and sway local media outlets to support its claims to power. Morsi’s hostility toward the media and his supporters’ intimidation of and threats against the press had helped polarize the media landscape in Egypt, reducing journalists’ ability to collectively stand against government repression.
When the military reassumed power in July, authorities were easily able to censor the press and implement a propaganda campaign that framed all opposition groups as “terrorists.” Continuing a pattern started in 2011, the military cultivated a climate of fear and mistrust among the public and propagated conspiracy theories about “subversive foreign threats.”
This media vilification and government harassment of the Al Jazeera journalists sound eerily familiar to me. I was one of those tried and convicted in the “NGO trial,” in which the military government brought charges in 2011 against one German and four U.S. nongovernmental organizations: the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists. Forty-three staff members were convicted in June and given varying prison sentences. Some sentences were suspended, and while none of us is in jail now, most of us have been forced to stay away from Egypt.
Although we were officially charged with operating in Egypt without nongovernmental organization licenses and receiving funding without permission, Egyptian media outlets accused us of creating chaos and inciting violence, even falsely reporting that weapons had been found in our offices.
I learned from Twitter that the Egyptian government had indicted us, called me and 27 other NGO employees “fugitives” and asked Interpol to arrest us — before we had even been questioned. During the 18-month trial, the judge, who previously worked in Egypt’s state security court, received no evidence against us but still convicted us of implementing an American and Israeli conspiracy to usher in “soft imperialism” in Egypt.
The verdict prompted a minor outcry from foreign governments and some German and U.S. threats to condition or cut aid. Soon, however, relations with the military government normalized, and our plight was forgotten. None of the affected human rights groups is able to operate in Egypt today.
The Al Jazeera journalists are similarly being charged with operating without a license. Government-aligned media outlets have accused them of implementing a “Qatari agenda” and “inciting violence.” Egypt’s prosecutor general has said that the network altered footage and modified video scenes using software and sophisticated editing equipment, and that journalists were paid to distort Egypt’s image abroad with false news. (The Qatar-owned network denies the allegations.)
Unfortunately, the government crackdown has drawn support from many Egyptians. The military and its backers have inflated a false sense of nationalism and cultivated anti-American rhetoric to condemn any group affiliated with the United States. And because Qatar had supported Morsi’s government with billions of dollars in aid and investment, Al Jazeera is easily accused of bias and wrongful intent.
Some in the Egyptian government would like to preserve some level of international legitimacy. Interim President Adly Mansour said last month that he has asked prosecutors to quickly review the cases of those detained without charges. A spokesman for the foreign ministry said the government would rectify some of its mistakes on press freedom.
But with Egypt clearly shifting away from democracy, it is critical that international media are able to report freely on government abuses. If they have support from the international community, journalists and press-freedom groups working with progressive factions within and outside the government could still limit the power of the military and security services.
Soon, however, Egypt could fall into an information black hole and a sense of impunity could make the minor act of interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist crime — in Egypt and any other country taking notes on how to get away with criminalizing journalism.
The writer is the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Special to The Washington Post.