The charges by the Cairo Criminal Court against 20 Al Jazeera employees has drawn condemnation and ire from rights groups and governments across the globe, as Egyptian authorities widen their crackdown on voices of dissent.
On Wednesday, the defendants from the Qatari-based news channel were slapped with a list of serious charges which include belonging to a terrorist organisation; calling for disruption of the law and preventing state institutions from conducting their affairs; broadcasting false news to support a terrorist group; and harming the national interest of the country.
In a statement from its official spokesperson, Al Jazeera called the charges groundless and an affront to media freedom.
“The world knows these allegations against our journalists are absurd, baseless and false. This is a challenge to free speech, to the right of journalists to report on all aspects of events, and to the right of people to know what is going on,” read the statement.
Al Jazeera added that it has not been officially notified of the charges, and that its only employees in Egypt are already in police
“We reject all of the charges made by the Egyptian authorities against our team. There’s no basis to any of it, so we will defend them vigorously,” said Bernard Smith, a veteran Al Jazeera correspondent who has had extensive experience in Cairo.
“I’ve never experienced such a determined attempt to crack down on journalists.”
In a Wednesday press briefing, the United States State Department strongly condemned the ongoing detention and violence against journalists. In one of the US’s most strongly worded statements yet against Egypt’s interim government, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the US is “deeply concerned” by the Egyptian government’s “targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims”.
“We are alarmed by reports today of additional journalists facing charges, including the Al Jazeera journalists,” said Psaki. “Any journalists, regardless of affiliation, must not be targets of violence, intimidation, or politicised legal action. They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in Egypt.”
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has called for the immediate and unconditional release of the Al Jazeera journalists currently being detained, and for the prosecutors to drop all charges “that stem from the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression”.
“The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today—that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities,” said Salil Shett
The charges also drew condemnation from press freedom advocate the Committee to Protect Journalists, who said the “government’s lack of tolerance” is indicative of its inability to “handle criticism”
Dubbed the “Marriott Cell” by the prosecution, the main charges centre around three Al Jazeera journalists arrested on 29 December, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national. Fahmy and Greste were arrested at the Zamalek Marriott, where they were using two rented suites as a base of operations, while Baher was arrested the same night at his home in suburban Cairo.
Eight of the defendants are currently in custody and will be referred to court, while arrest warrants have been issued for the other 12.