US Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the “targeting of Egyptian and foreign journalists and academics simply for expressing their views” is of “deep concern to the [US] administration.”
Carney stressed that the US government has been “making [such concerns] clear” to the interim authorities in Egypt, although he made no comment on how they have been received by Egyptian authorities.
“Egypt’s transition can only move forward if all Egyptians are able to express themselves freely, without fear of intimidation or violence,” Carney said.
Carney also referenced the protections afforded to journalists, activists and academics in the newly ratified Egyptian constitution, passed with a 98.1% approval rate mid-January. “Egypt’s newly approved constitution upholds basic rights and freedoms, and Egypt’s interim government has a responsibility to ensure that they are protected,” he said.
Article 39 of the Egyptian constitution, to which Carney was referring, states: “The freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed and every person has the right to express his/her thought and opinion verbally, in writing, photography or any other means of publication and expression.”
Carney added: “We have strongly urged the government to drop these charges and release those journalists and academics that have been detained.”
The three journalists for Qatari-based Al Jazeera, whom Carney mentioned in his remarks, are Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian national. They were arrested from the Zamalek Marriott Hotel on 29 December.
Their charges include “broadcasting false news to support a terrorist group; harming the national interest of the country; disturbing public security; instilling fear among the people; causing damage to the public interest; and possession of communication, filming, broadcast, and video transmission equipment without a permit from the concerned authorities”. They will be tried alongside 17 other Al Jazeera journalists.
If convicted, they face could face 15-25 years in prison with the possibility of a death penalty.
Dubbed the “Marriott Cell” by Egyptian media, the arrests caused outrage throughout the international community, from journalists and news organisations to the European Union.
Tuesday, a march took place outside the Egyptian embassy in Nairobi, demanding the release of the imprisoned journalists. Signs read “Being a journalist is not a crime” and “We are all Peter Greste,” in reference to one of the men arrested from the Marriott Hotel.
A web campaign in support of the arrested journalists also gained momentum Tuesday. Journalists and activists used Twitter to share photographs of themselves, mouths taped shut, with signs that read “#FreeAJStaff”.
The campaign came on the heels of the broadcast of a video filmed by security forces as they entered the hotel room of three Al Jazeera journalists. The twenty-minute clip, shown on independent Al-Tahrir television channel, shows the equipment used by the journalists, gas masks, cameras, and editing equipment, before showing an initial interrogation by security forces.
Al Jazeera condemned the airing of the footage of the arrest. A statement released by Al Jazeera described the “dramatisation” of the footage as an attempt to demonise its journalists, saying that “if this video was deliberately leaked, it violates basic standards of justice. If it came out by mistake, the professionalism of the prosecution process is called into question.”
The United Nations also condemned the arrests and charges, demanding the “release all journalists imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities in exercise of their fundamental human rights.”
Peter Greste, one of the imprisoned Al Jazeera correspondents, has been able to release two letters from prison, detailing his conditions in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison.