An Egyptian court has handed jail terms to three Al Jazeera journalists, convicting them of helping “terrorist organisations” by spreading lies in a trial that has sparked international outcry and refocused the spotlight on declining media freedoms in the country.
Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy each got seven years, while producer Baher Mohamed received two sentences—one for seven years and another for three.
Eleven defendants tried in absentia, including one Dutch journalist and two British journalists, were given 10-year sentences.
It has been one of the biggest campaigns for press freedom, and there had been cautious optimism by the “Free Al Jazeera Staff” movement following the release last week of Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy, who had been on hunger strike for nearly five months protesting his imprisonment without charge.
Egypt’s prosecutor general Hesham Barakat ordered the release of Elshamy, who has shed 40kg since he began the hunger strike, on medical grounds.
But the latest verdicts have been received with shock around the world, and raised questions about the country’s respect for media freedoms. Newly-elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said he is more concerned with returning Egypt to stability, adding to concern about the protection of civil liberties.
Hell for journalists
From the Egyptian revolution in 2012, which saw the formation of a government led by Mohamed Morsi, activist organisation Reporters Without Borders documented an increase in abuses against journalists in Egypt, and a general effort to bring the media under the Muslim Brotherhood’s control.
Then, when Morsi was eventually removed by the army under General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in July last year, the new authorities systematically targeted the foreign press, and also Egyptian media viewed as affiliated or sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the second-half of 2013 five journalists were killed and at least 80 were detained by police.
Independent watchdog Freedom House, stated that “Egypt declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to officially tolerated campaigns to intimidate journalists, increased efforts to prosecute reporters and commentators for insulting the political leadership or defaming religion, and intensified polarisation of the pro– and anti–Muslim Brotherhood press”.
Egypt is now currently ranked 159th out of 180 on the 2014 Press Freedom Index, an index that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes every year to measure the level of freedom of information in 180 countries.
But Egypt is not the only African nation faring badly in terms of press freedom. By December 2013 in Africa, media freedom pressure group Committee to Protect Journalists recorded the imprisonment of 211 journalists worldwide, 50 of these in various African countries.
Africa score declines
According to the “Press Freedom Index” Africa as a whole has recorded worsening conditions from 2013. A rise in conflict across the continent in 2013 led to big falls in press freedom in countries such as Mali (fell 22 places from 100 to 122 position) and the Central African Republic (fell 34 positions as the media became targeted by groups attempting to control news and information).
In Kenya and Burundi laws were passed restricting media freedom, while in Zambia the government implemented measures to censor and block news websites. Typically in countries, where rulers continue to cling onto power against all odds, such as Chad, media continues to be tightly controlled and in Cameroon this resulted in several closures.
As a politically volatile region it is expected that Africa would be performing negatively what is disconcerting nonetheless is that, according the Freedom House ‘Freedom of the Press Report’, the majority of African nations have a press which is considered not free; Four (8%) of the 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa were rated Free, 22 (45%) were rated Partly Free, and 23 (47%) were rated Not Free.