Middle East
6:05 am
Thu February 20, 2014

Journalists On Trial In Egypt On Terrorism-Related Charges

Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 7:38 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Journalists involved in a high-profile trial in Egypt made a brief and dramatic appearance in a Cairo courtroom today. The Egyptian government has been restricting press freedom, and it accused these journalists from the Al Jazeera network of terrorism, apparently because they were trying to interview members of a banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

NPR is, by the way, among several dozen news organizations that signed a petition calling for detained journalists to be released in Egypt. We're also keeping an eye on this case. And NPR's Leida Fadel was at the court this morning. Hi, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So what happened in the courtroom today?

FADEL: Well, they made an appearance today - Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed - the three Al Jazeera English journalists that have been detained, along with five others. They were sending messages to their family from inside the cage, telling journalists to tell them that they love them. One saying he'll have a big wedding with his fiancee when he gets out. So it was very emotional, very dramatic. But the families of Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were not allowed inside the courtroom and were not able to see them.

INSKEEP: You said inside the cage - is that the way it is in Egypt? The defendants are put in a cage?

FADEL: Yes. They're put in a prosecution cage. And in this case, they weren't actually in a courtroom. This was at a maximum security prison. You had to have special permission to get in. And the families, other than Andrew Greste, who got in with the Australian embassy, were not allowed inside.

INSKEEP: OK. So I want to understand who these journalists are, because there are a lot of journalists working in Cairo, including you, Leila Fadel. But these guys were targeted. Any idea why them?

FADEL: They are journalists with Al Jazeera English, which is a Qatari-funded network, the English channel of that network. And there has been a feud, really, between Egypt and the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. Egypt is angry with Qatar for support, they say, for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they now call a terrorist network. But the Committee to Protect Journalists and other human rights groups say this is really an issue of freedom of expression. They're being accused not only on terrorism charges, but spreading false news. And if they are convicted, it will set a dangerous precedent here in Egypt.

INSKEEP: And I want to be clear on what part of Al Jazeera were talking about here, because I know there's several networks. There is Arabic, there is English, there are program hosts who are very political and very partisan, but also just plain reporters, right?

FADEL: Yeah. These are just plain reports. Peter Greste is an on-air correspondent. The other two are producers. And the evidence that's being used against them that's being shown publicly is stuff that all journalists have: notebooks, business cards, recorders, cameras, lights.

INSKEEP: Is there any sense that the Egyptian government is concerned about the international objection to this, the letters that have been signed, the international news organizations and diplomats who've raised this concern with them? We were just interviewing a U.S. senator who was coming and going from Cairo today who said that he raised this issue bluntly with Egyptians.

FADEL: They've actually reacted quite angrily with the foreign press. They were angry about that letter. They're saying these guys didn't have permits. They weren't supposed to be working here. But Al Jazeera English says they haven't been banned from this country. Yes, in this case they didn't have permits, but usually that's a slap on the wrist and a ride to the airport, as one person put it today.

And so they've reacted angrily. And really, we've seen an escalation in this case continually. Fifty-two days these guys have been in prison. And today they requested bail, and that bail was denied. So we haven't seen really positive signs, but the families and the lawyers are hoping that this will be resolved and that they will be freed. As Peter Greste said from his cage today, if justice is to happen, we'll be free soon.

INSKEEP: Does this government say it supports freedom of the press?

FADEL: They say they do. They've issued statements saying if you're a credentialed journalist in Egypt who practices ethical journalism, then you'll be fine. But what is ethical journalism? Who decides if what you're reporting is false or true? It's a dangerous path to meander down. And convicting a journalist not only on terrorism charges but then this other charge of spreading false news could have huge ramifications for everyone else.

And just to remind you, Al Jazeera English journalists are not the only journalists that are imprisoned here in Egypt. This is just one case of other cases.

INSKEEP: Leila, thanks very much as always. Take care of yourself.

FADEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.