On Monday 23rd June, the world was shocked by an Egyptian court’s decision to hand down substantial jail terms to three Al Jazeera journalists detained in the country. Australian journalist Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Adel Fahmy were given seven-year terms for ‘broadcasting false reports’ and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian journalist Baher Mohammed received the same sentence plus an additional three years for possessing ammunition: a spent bullet casing found on the ground during a protest.
Numerous other journalists, both Egyptian and international, have been tried, either in person or in absentia, in what has been seen by many as a totalitarian crackdown on dissent. Press organisations, governments and civil society groups have rightly denounced this deplorable verdict. The Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, describing the sentence against the journalists, said “We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it”. Campaign group Reporters Without Borders have condemned the government’s “policy of gagging news media that try to offer a different take on reality from the government’s”. Meanwhile the Foreign Press Association described the verdict as a “travesty of justice”. An international campaign, #freeAJStaff, has been building on social media since the journalists were first detained 179 days ago.
The worrying clampdown on the media in Egypt reflects the danger that journalists face in delivering news and debate around the world. The International News Safety Institute (INSI) has documented 60 journalists, media staff and citizen journalists that have been killed worldwide in 2014 alone. Reporters Without Borders highlights concerns about press freedom across the world through its World Press Freedom Index. As all Commonwealth countries have voluntarily committed themselves to ‘peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media’ through Article V of the Commonwealth Charter, this is an issue of which Commonwealth governments must take note. Pakistan is currently listed as one of the five worst countries for journalist casualties in 2014, according to the INSI, as well as in the worst 50 countries in the World Press Freedom Index alongside fellow Commonwealth countries: Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India.
The RCS joins global supporters of the #FreeAJStaff campaign in condemning the verdict against the Al Jazeera journalists and in calling for the Egyptian government to respect open dialogue, freedom of the press and democratic voices. The RCS also calls on the international community as a whole and the Commonwealth in particular to ensure that journalists can always contribute to free, open and democratic discussion without fear of harassment, violence or intimidation.