Despite international calls for their release, three journalists who work for Al-Jazeera marked 100 days held in captivity by the Egyptian government joining a fourth who has been detained for nearly eight months.
The Qatar-based network held a press conference Monday in New York to call for support to win the release of Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed who work for Al-Jazeera English, and Abdulla al-Shami, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera Arabic. Each was arrested and taken into custody amid the turmoil in Egypt which has resulted in the upheaval from a democratically elected government to the current regime.
Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed were detained Dec. 29 under charges of spreading false news and aiding a terrorist organization. Al-Shami was taken Aug. 14 and has been held without trial. Egypt accuses the journalists of supporting the deposed Muslim Brotherhood, which is deemed to be a terrorist group by the militarist government. The regime came into power after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi.
“During those 100 days our men have been joined by their colleagues around the world with a simple message: journalism is not a crime,” said Owen Watson, executive producer of newsgathering for Al-Jazeera English. “What has been heartening for the families and the friends of our men has been the global response to their plight. Events in their support and for the freedom of other journalists have taken place in 30 countries and there have been more than 800 million impressions of #FreeAJStaff.
“The charges they face are false and baseless,” he continued. “We are convinced as we were on day one that there was no justification for the detention of these innocent journalists.”
Fahmy, Greste, and Mohamed have made four court appearances since their arrests, each time in a cage, though they were let out briefly to address a judge during their March 31 hearing. Fahmy demanded that the judge find them innocent. Their appeals to the court failed and they were returned to prison.
The grim milestone comes as international news organizations fear harsh crackdowns against journalists in Egypt that they believe could possibly spill into other Middle Eastern countries.
“The reason why what is happening in Egypt now with our journalists must not go down and have them branded as terrorists is that if that happens, that appellation will not stop with our own and it would not stop in Egypt,” said Abderrahim Foukara, Al-Jazeera Arabic North America bureau chief. “It would knock on the door of every journalist, wherever they may be, even in democracies.
“The Egyptian government and the punitive measures it is now taking are part of a larger body of work that’s actually percolating in the region.”
Journalists have run into trouble with Egyptian officials before and after the “Arab Spring” of 2011 but this is believed to be the most audacious abuse of press freedom in the nation in recent memory, said Sherif Mansour who monitors the Middle East and North Africa for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We’ve been monitoring the press situation in Egypt since 1992 and we have said publicly that this is the worst situation for journalists that we have seen since then,” he explained. “This is worse than (Hosni) Mubarak, worse than Mohamed Morsi.” He noted that six journalists have been killed covering Egypt protests last year, and that the nation is holding 12 journalists, including those from Al-Jazeera.
The 100-day mark also comes just a week after two Associated Press journalists were attacked while covering Afghanistan, one fatally, underscoring the danger in reporting on volatile regions.
Photographer Anja Niedringhaus was shot to death, and correspondent Kathy Gannon suffered several gunshot wounds when an Afghan police commander walked up to them and opened fire. The AP reported it was the first known case of a Afghan security official attacking journalists.
Gary Pruitt, AP president and CEO said, that although strong measures are routinely taken to bolster the safety of the wire service staff in the region, the incident was unpredictable.
“It didn’t appear to be the most unsafe situation,” he said. “They’ve been in more harrowing situations. This was a police commander … you can have all the security in the world, but if you have one of the police commanders there to protect you as security turn on you, there’s little you can do.”
However, Pruitt emphasized that AP staff are trained in security and given protective gear. AP does not ask journalists who do not want to enter conflict situations to do so. “We take all the steps we can to keep our journalists safe and, at the same time, allow them to cover the news.”
Al-Jazeera officials say there is ground level work being done to free their reporters in the form of getting information and securing access for their families. However, the Egyptian government has not been willing to listen to offers to negotiate their release. “But we have been there; we remain there until our men our free,” said Al-Jazeera English executive producer Owen Watson.
The next trial date for Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed is April 10. Al-Shami remains in custody and is in the 77th day of a hunger strike and is said to be in deteriorating health.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated Abdulla al-Shami had been detained more than eight months. It has been nearly eight months.