Egypt is slowly becoming the Sin City of the Middle-east. One of the most populous countries in the Africa-Middle-east subcontinent, Egypt’s non-tolerance of free speech and journalism has shocked the world. The waves of despair hit an all time low when three Al-Jazeera journalists along with five others - accused of joining and aiding a terrorist organization and posing a threat to national security – were refused bail on February 20, 2014 in a case that has now been adjourned to March 5.
The irony lies in the fact that this so-called terrorist organization is Egypt’s former ruling party ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’ that has been overthrown and rebranded as a terrorist organization by Egypt’s militarybacked government. Around 20 people including journalists have been accused of having connections with the ‘terrorist group’. When members of the Press face such allegations, the dynamics of reportage change entirely. These journalists who interviewed Muslim Brotherhood members were merely doing their job, which is to collect evidence and facts and present it as news.
Al-Jazeera, originally based out of Doha, Qatar, has been of fierce and independent repute. Known for its willingness to broadcast views of dissent, this award-winning channel covered the Egypt protests of 2011 extensively when it received greater international recognition and established itself as the mouthpiece of diverging parties; post covering the war of Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera became a popular and respected brand in itself known to extend its influence over the regions where it is accessible. With a backdrop as lucid as this, Egypt’s select choice of waging war against the channel is both alarming and unintelligent. The central government of the 15th most populated state in the world ought to behave more responsibly; curbing the freedom of Press in a country like this is clipping its very spirit, and such anarchy is to be condemned. The streets of Egypt are on fire with protest pouring in from all corners of the world in support of the Al-Jazeera journalists.
The three journalists - Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, Australian reporter Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed - who are held in Torah, Cairo’s maximum security prisonm are no world-class terrorists. Yet videos and reports have been leaked that claim that these journalists who are still under trial have been tortured badly. Fahmy, who has a dislocated shoulder, has been denied proper medical care. These journalists were chained when they appeared in court on February 20, a very symbolic appearance in itself mirroring the shackling of free Press and the state of liberty that is in ruins.
The singular silencing of Al-Jazeera is questionable and poses a very direct question - How long will the Press endure such treatment at the hands of governments who want to subdue any voice or opinion that pertains to criticism? The prosecutors in Egypt over the last few months have meted out decisions and judgments that are a direct threat to freedom of speech. In January, famous academic and Member of Parliament Amr Hamzawy was referred to trial by the prosecutors of Egypt for tweeting.
His tweet questioned a court ruling and he was referred to trial on the grounds of “insulting the judiciary”. This absurd, politicized state of affairs is aimed to veil opinions and points of view and raises questions about the manner of governing a state that is now devoid of its basic human rights. Though the interim government of Egypt has accused international news services of bias, presenting only one angle, it seems the chains they have hung around the neck of these news people are much tighter and shameful. Despite staunch protests from the US and other state governments, human rights associations, news agencies, etc., the government is rigid in its trial methods and has not softened its stand.
The outrageous state of affairs in Egypt and the attitude of the government is reflected through their decision to detain Al-Jazeera network’s Arabic channel journalist Abdullah Al-Shami, who has been in custody since August, 2013. Shami is believed to be a supporter of the ousted party and of Egypt’s ex-President Mohammed Morsi, there is no substantial evidence against him. The actions by the Egyptian prosecutors are raising eyebrows across the globe.
Egypt’s systematic oppression of the Press is a painful reminder of the state we are in today. The biggest democracies of the world are marching towards a state of anarchy, acting irresponsibly and irrevocably damaging all that they stood and fought for. The World Press Freedom Index, a study conducted by a Parisbased media watchdog, ranks Egypt very low on Press freedom. Even India has been ranked 140th, a matter of grave concern for the world’s largest democracy.
This is indicative of the fact that governments around the world are trying to control the Press and with various forms of journalism being practised today in the form of social media and networking platforms, the grip around these bodies are being tightened.
What needs to be questioned is, why should any journalist, in any state, be punished for simply doing his/her job? Regardless of any personal affiliations they might have, journalists should be allowed to write, work and report news freely. Such methodical crackdown practised by governments raises serious concerns over their democratic credentials and sends the chilling message that multiple narratives will no longer be tolerated and allowed by governments. The action of the Egyptian authorities and other such governments around the world calls for a deeper probe into the exact demarcation of ‘journalistic boundaries’ and the need to put an end to such dissent.