The draconian treatment of three Al Jazeera journalists who have been sent to jail by a Cairo court amidst worldwide condemnation is a sharp reminder to aspiring democrats in Egypt that the Arab Spring in the media is close to collapse.
Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and correspondent Peter Greste – formerly with the BBC – were jailed for seven years on charges of spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities have designated a terrorist organisation. Their colleague producer Baher Mohamed was jailed for ten years along with nine others, including three journalists, who fled the country and were tried in their absence.
The case has provoked an unprecedented international campaign involving global media and human rights groups who claim the arrest and trial of media staff is an act of political grandstanding by the Egyptian government in its regional dispute with Qatar, the home of the Al Jazeera Media Network.
Correspondents on the spot complain about the openly political and provocative behaviour of prosecutors and the lack of any real evidence of support for terrorism.
Lawyers who have argued strongly that legitimate journalism is under ferocious attack will probably take the case to appeal, but worryingly, though, this case is not just about Al Jazeera.
Only nine of the 20 defendants in the case are Al Jazeera staff members, and in the intimidating atmosphere that has overwhelmed Egyptian media since the removal of President Mohammed Morsi and the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood a year ago, anyone in journalism who has appeared sympathetic to the Brotherhood has been isolated and removed.
A sign of the shrinking freedoms came earlier this month with the decision by Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef to abandon his popular weekly television show which has won international acclaim for its merciless targeting of presidents and high-ranking politicians. He complained that he could no longer tolerate the risks to his family and the pressure from the authorities. Egypt, he says, is no longer country that can live with satire.
The focus on Al Jazeera is not surprising. It is not well-loved by many regional leaders and has courted controversy over the years with its modernising mix of explicit journalism and a challenging approach to corruption and politics and public life across the Middle East.
However, the Egyptian government has targeted Al Jazeera with particular venom because it is the media flagship of Qatar. It is accused of broadcasts that encourage support for the Muslim Brotherhood, in line with the bias of the Doha government.
The network strongly denies allegations of political bias (General Director Moustefa Souag, speaking at the Al Jazeera Forum earlier this month even invited an independent investigation of its Egyptian coverage) but the allegations have begun to stick.
The notion that the network is an enemy of the state has become accepted wisdom within Egyptian journalism, including among some of the independent media which have been prominent since the overthrow of the oppressive rule of President Hosni Mubarak. As a result they have kept their silence over the imprisonment and charging of journalists.
This has frustrated press freedom activists abroad and raised concerns over how widespread self-censorship has taken root in media undermining political pluralism and creating a chill for journalism. Even the powerful Syndicate of Journalists has had a muted response to the targeting of journalists. It has made no public protest, but has chosen instead to express reservations in private meetings with government leaders.
There had been some hope that the hard line against media might be softening when Egypt’s prosecutor general a week ago ordered the release of Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy on humanitarian grounds, ending almost a year of imprisonment without charge. He has been on hunger strike since January and was freed along with 13 other prisoners due to “health conditions.”
But the latest verdict has firmly closed down any hopes of a major shift in policy on the part of the government and new President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
The signs are that the internal and external pressures that now constrain the work of Egyptian journalists will remain in place for some time to come.
This will cause dismay to many journalists, particular those who have signed up to the Egyptian Editors’ Association, a newly-launched professional group which last week in Cairo organised a ground-breaking conference on technology and innovation in the news.
This event, which was organised in partnership with the Ethical Journalism Network and the Global Editors’ Network, was full of optimism. More than 100 executives and news leaders from all sectors of media discussed the potential for the transformation of newsrooms and the scope for open journalism.
Their enthusiasm reflects a yearning for change that still drives the movement for political reform and democracy, but they have been given a clear warning not to step out of line.