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Why Egyp's Anti-Press Verdict Must Be Overturned


By Emmanuel Onwubiko
At a time most observers hoped that the coming into being of the new political dispensation in Egypt will usher in a rapprochement between the state and the media, it has further nosedived to an all time low in terms of media repression going by the verdict issued by the court jailing some journalists working for the Aljazeera television to seven years for performing their legitimate duties as media workers.

The Guardian of the United Kingdom has just reported that   Egypt 's judiciary has dealt a shocking blow to the principle of free speech after three journalists for Al-Jazeera English were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail on charges of aiding terrorists and endangering national security. These journalists were simply thrown into jail for doing their duty. Nothing more, nothing less.

Reporting further on this very sad and an unfortunate development, the leading British print media disclosed that the former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, from Australia , the ex-CNN journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and local producer Baher Mohamed were jailed for seven, seven and 10 years respectively. Four students and activists indicted in the case were sentenced to seven years.

The despicable court process that culminated in these embarrassing sentences is not only a local matter but is a declaration of war against global media freedoms. First, the journalists involved in this pre-arranged and state sponsored trial are from divergent countries around the World and secondly, press freedoms are embedded in all international humanitarian laws to which Egypt subscribed to as a member of the United Nations. John Milton reminded us that what has happened in Egypt can only be done by people who hate freedom. he had written thus; “None can love freedom heartily but goodmen; the rest love not freedom but license”.

This undemocratic judgment is the clearest evidence that the newly elected civilian administration in Egypt is only 'civil' in nomenclature but is actively the same dictatorial contraption going by the inherent fact that the man elected as President [General Abdel Fattah El Sisi] is the same General who masterminded the removal of the erstwhile Mohammed Morsi's-led Moslem Brotherhood government. The Moslem Brotherhood Government it could be recalled was removed based on genuine fears expressed by over fourteen million Egyptians who staged counter revolution demanding its replacement with a secular democratic structure that would respect all religious and political shades of opinion.

But since the dethronement of the bad government of the United States trained Dr. Morsi, developments from the judiciary of that country have been anything but good. There appears to be a regime of persecution of all independent voices as exemplified by this latest round of verdict targeted against these journalists.

 The verdict issued by the Egyptian court is not only laughable, undemocratic, primitive and unacceptable because it goes against the very essence of fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declarations of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights but it is also comical and meaningless and indeed projects Egypt and by extension Africa as a very unserious jungle in contemporary political history.

All right thinking Africans must prevail on the new government in Egypt to overturn this oppressive verdict which was clearly masterminded by the executive arm of government in Egypt meant to teach a lesson to the press for deciding to remain independent and the play the role of the official voice of the voiceless in that Country that has consistently remained in the news for the bad reason that political instability has become the norm rather than exception. Only recently, over five hundred members of the banned Moslem Brotherhood political party were sentenced to death for only belonging to this platform.

 To demonstrate the comic nature of these so-called trial, the Egyptian judge also handed 10-year sentences to the British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane and the Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who were not in Egypt but were tried in absentia.

The Guardian [of United Kingdom] reported that the courtroom packed with journalists, diplomats and relatives erupted at the verdict which came despite what independent observers said was a complete lack of evidence. These observers in that courtroom must have been understandably jolted by this unconscionable judgment that can at best be described as a 'satanic verse'.

Shouting from the defendants' cage fearlessly as he was led away, Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen, said: “They'll pay for this.” Greste's reaction could not be heard, but the faces of his two younger brothers – both present in court – were grim.

“I'm just stunned,” said Andrew Greste, as reporters were pushed from the courtroom. “It's difficult to comprehend how they can have reached this decision”, so reported The Guardian.

Fahmy's mother and fiancée according to news report, both broke down in tears, while his brother Adel, who travelled from his home in Kuwait for the verdict, reacted with fury.

“This is not a system,” he said. “This is not a country. They've ruined our lives. It shows everything that's wrong with the system: it's corrupt. This country is corrupt through and through.”

Diplomats and rights campaigners who have observed the trial expressed incredulity at the verdict. “On the basis of the evidence that we've seen, we can't understand the verdict,” said Larry King, the Australian ambassador in Cairo. “We will make our feelings clear to the Egyptian government and we will continue to provide all possible consular assistance.”

 From available information, this writer is aware that the body of evidence presented before the judge that reached this reprehensible verdict were completely unrelated to the actual subject matter just as most analysts within Egypt have decisively condemned this obscene judicial anarchy.

For instance, Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms who has observed every session of the trial for Amnesty, said the verdict sent a chilling message to all opposition figures in Egypt.

“It's a warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction simply for carrying out their official duties,” Lotfy said. “This feeds into a wider picture of a politicised judiciary and the use of trials to crack down on all opposition voices.”

While hoping that this charade would be overturned on appeal, it is also appropriate that the African Union should drive the process of convincing the Egyptian government on why it should discontinue the ongoing attacks on fundamental freedoms and especially press freedom. The International Community must also prevail on Egypt to arrest the speedy decline of democratic tenets and practices in that country and embrace real practical democracy and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all irrespective of political, religious and social status.

The Nigerian Government can show leadership by throwing its diplomatic weight behind African Union by demanding that fairness, equity and social justice are embraced as the hallmark of the government of Egypt and indeed all African democracies. But first, the Nigerian Government must also stop the Nigerian Military from further whittling down the freedoms of the media practitioners to go about their duty without let or hindrance. Charity they say begins at home.

+Emmanuel Onwubiko; Head; Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria; [email protected],