What happened to free speech?
On June 24 this year, journalists at the BBC and Al Jazeera headquarters fell silent.
Men and women stood still wearing black tape upon their faces in protest of verdict pronounced by the Egyptian government that turned June 24 to a black day for journalists everywhere.
The silent protest was held twenty four hours after the Egyptian government sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to jail. While Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy were sentenced to seven years of jail time, Baher Mohamed has been sentenced to ten years for possession of ‘arms’ which was apparently a bullet casing he found in a protest.
They have been in custody since December 29, 2013 over allegations that they aided the Muslim Brotherhood and spread false news about the state of affairs in Egypt.
But the three are just a few of the number of journalists trapped for reporting, what is essentially, the truth.
Shortly after the removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi last year, things got rough for the Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization that was deemed a terrorist one in the coup that overthrew Morsi after which the army put General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in place.
Now as news organizations around the world protest against this repression, questions over the freedom of speech in Egypt arise. While the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has gone ahead and called the sentences “chilling and draconian” Sisi has been under attack from the U.N. as well with Navi Pillay calling such harassment, detention attacks on journalists, bloggers and activists in Egypt, “commonplace”. Pillai urged Sisi to review the cases, though she wasn’t the only one to do it.
Sisi has meanwhile gone ahead to say that he would keep out of the whole process of the verdict, saying that he would respect the judicial rulings and “not criticize them even if others do not understand this”.
This year Egypt ranked a low 159 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. This comes as a slight shocker seeing that after the Egyptian revolution in 2011 which saw the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, people expected a more liberal Egypt. But under Morsi, a large part of the media came under the control of the government. Sisi seems to have kept up that tradition as journalists, especially those who have reported on the Muslim Brotherhood, come under its inquisition.
This even though Egypt’s new constitution drafted this January grants freedom to the media under Article 211 which bends towards “safeguarding its independence, neutrality, plurality and diversity, preventing monopolistic practices, monitoring the legality of the sources of funding of press and media institutions” . Article 17 of this same constitution mandates that “it is prohibited to censor, confiscate, suspend or shut down Egyptian newspapers and media outlets in any way”.
Clearly, what has been going on in Egypt is in the opposite direction.
Not only in Egypt but this ‘attack’ against journalism has been a matter of great concern in other parts of the world as well.
In Afghanistan this April, Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus was shot dead while her colleague Kathy Gannon was left critically injured. This, on the eve of the Afghan elections. In Pakistan, Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir, a critic of the Pakistan army and its intelligence agencies narrowly escaped a bout with death after being shot six times.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald won the Pulitzer for his reportage of the controversial NSA files but not without constantly being scrutinized by the U.S. government especially due to his contact with Edward Snowden. His partner David Miranda was even detained for ‘helping’ the journalist under a terrorism act, a detention which was not exactly well founded.
As the fourth estate is under siege the world over, with government and intelligence authorities coming down on journalists with equal measure, we need to remind ourselves of one thing: journalism is not a crime. What these journalists are doing is their job – bringing the truth closer to the people. We need to support them and the freedom of the press.
After all isn’t freedom of speech our right? Or do we live our lives looking back to see if someone is watching us all the time?
Interestingly on World Press Freedom Day (May 2), Fahmy was conferred a press freedom award. It was also the day the trio was brought to a Cairo court for their judicial proceedings.