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Death ruling on journalists questions Egypt’s tolerance for media

Death sentence on three journalists focuses attention on Egypt as one of the countries with the least tolerance for media. Ibrahim Helal, a journalist whose…

Death sentence on three journalists focuses attention on Egypt as one of the countries with the least tolerance for media.
Ibrahim Helal, a journalist whose death sentence in Egypt has been affirmed, said, “The main inconsistency is that we as journalists are accused of cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Qatar … because the media regime, the media tycoons in Egypt are making propaganda every day that Qatar is a big supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
An Egyptian criminal court in Cairo last week handed the death sentence to three journalists, including Helal, on charges of espionage. The June 18 ruling was the final one in the trial of 11 people, including the three journalists, accused of leaking state secrets.
While Helal is identified as a former director of news at the Qatari television network, Al Jazeera; Alaa Omar Mohamed Sablanis recognized as another former Al Jazeera journalist, and Asmaa Mohamed al-Khatib is identified as a reporter with a pro-Muslim Brotherhood news outlet, Rassd News Network (RNN), based in Cairo.
The Al Jazeera bearing of Helal and Sablan gives Al Jazeera much concern. “The two journalists were falsely accused of wrongdoing under what is known as ‘The Espionage Case’,” Al Jazeera said in a statement.
In his comments on the sentence, the Acting Director General of Al Jazeera Media Network, Dr.Mostefa Souag, said, “The sentence issued by the Egyptian Criminal court is considered an entire failure for the justice and court system in Egypt; a country classified as one of the
most dangerous places for journalists to work in. This sentence is only one of many politicized sentences that target Al Jazeera and its employees. They are illogical convictions and legally baseless.”
Egypt stands today as one of the trickiest countries for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report in March indicating that Egypt was second only to China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2015.
The report of the CPJ on jailing of journalists as it involved Egypt read in part, “Perhaps nowhere has the climate for the press deteriorated more rapidly than in Egypt… President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues to use the pretext of national security to clamp down on dissent.”
The report which indicated that the trend was a growing one, said Cairo was holding 23 journalists in jail, compared with 12 years ago.
Those behind bars in Egypt include Ismail Alexandrani, a freelance investigative journalist who was charged on December 1, 2015, with publishing false news and belonging to the banned group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Ismail Alexandrani’s arrest is the latest attempt by the Egyptian government to silence critical reporting through force and intimidation,” CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa research associate Jason Stern, said at the time.
A 2015 prison census by the CPJ showed that 199 journalists were in jail worldwide. The countries and the number of journalists they were holding as prisoners include China 48, Egypt 23, Iran 19, Eritrea 17, Turkey 14, Ethiopia 10, Azerbaijan 8, Syria and Saudi Arabia 7 each, and Vietnam 6.Bahrain, Bangladesh, and Myanmar had five prisoners each while India and Uzbekistan had four each.
On its own, the Paris press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, ranked Egypt 159 out of 180 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. The organisation’s report said, “The authoritarian regime has used the fraught security situation to crack down on critical journalists in the name of stability and national security. Egypt had fallen steadily in the Index since the end of the Mubarak era, when it was ranked 127th out of 173 countries. Under President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt was ranked 158th of 178 countries in 2012 and 2013. With more than 20 journalists currently detained on trumped-up charges, Egypt is now one of the world’s biggest prisons for media personnel.”
The Morsi era ended in 2013 when as chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, more known simply as Sisi, launched the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état that removed President Morsi from office in the aftermath of the June 2013 Egyptian protests. Sisi, who did not become president till June 8, 2014, following the 2014 presidential election, retains issues with the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the organisations that boycotted the election.
The death sentence of the three journalists was first pronounced last month when Judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmy of the Cairo criminal court made the recommendation. Rooted under standard procedure in cases of capital punishment, his recommendation went for endorsement to the office of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the nation’s top Islamic legal authority.
Giving the final ruling last week, Fahmy quoted the Mufti’s office as saying that the three journalists, and others similarly sentenced, had sought to harm Egypt when they passed to a foreign nation details of the army’s deployment as well as reports prepared by intelligence agencies.
“They are more dangerous than spies, because spies are usually foreigners, but these (Ibrahim Lelal and Asmaa Mohamed al-Khatib)are, regrettably, Egyptians who betrayed the trust. No ideology can ever justify the betrayal of one’s country,” he said.
The three journalists originally sentenced on May 7 were tried in absentia, as they were not in Egypt. The provisional death sentence remained so till June 18 when the final sentencing hearing confirmed the death sentence following a nod from the Grand Mufti’s office.
But Helal has insisted that he is innocent. “I have never been in any political organization, I have never done any harm to my country,” he says.
Asmaa Mohamed al-Khatib’s own immediate reaction was expression of shock. “I was completely shocked,” she told The New Arab when the judgment was announced last month. She was further quoted as saying from Turkey where she was at the time the judgment was passed, “I do not acknowledge the legitimacy of this regime or its judiciary, and I know it will fall sooner or later. But I cannot deny my shock at the verdict.”
She said she only discovered she was one of those recommended to be executed after she heard former Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim speaking on television about a supposed spy cell working for Qatar.
In its reaction, Amnesty International called the charges against the journalists ‘ludicrous’. “Egypt’s broken and utterly corrupted justice system is now little more than a handy tool for the authorities’ repression of any vestiges of opposition or criticism,” the human rights advocacy group said.
Unlike Ibrahim Helal and Asmaa Mohamed al-Khatib who are both Egyptians, Alaa Omar Mohamed Sablan is a Jordanian, but both Helal and Sablan were with Al Jazeera; and Al Jazeera journalists had run into trouble with Egypt before. Last year, three Al Jazeera journalists spent over a year in prison before they were freed. They were held on charges that they supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
Anyone or group suspected to have any association with Qatar, like the Muslim Brotherhood, makes Egypt’s leadership uncomfortable. Egypt’s relations with Qatar have been fraught with tension since the overthrow of Morsi who enjoyed Qatar’s support. Al Jazeera comes into the mix because Sisi’s regime also maintains that Al-Jazeera’s news coverage of Egypt unduly favours militant Islamic groups.
Of the three journalists on the death roll, Ibrahim Helal is the most travelled in journalism. Helal has spent close to 20 years in international journalism. He served as the deputy managing director of News and Programming at Al Jazeera Satellite Channel Corp and beIN SPORTS. He has been with Egyptian TV, BBC Arabic TV and the BBC World Service Trust.
He joined Al Jazeera English from BBC World Service Trust, where he served as Project Director for the Middle East and North Africa, responsible for the training and development of Arab media organisations. With BBC’s Arabic Service in London, he participated in the launch of its Arabic website and news intake department.
Prior to that, he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Al Jazeera Arabic Channel, responsible for editorial policy and output during the September 11th attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He served as Head of News of Abu Dhabi TV from 2000 to 2001 and was overseeing coverage of events, including the death of the Syrian president Hafiz Al-Assad, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and the second Palestinian uprising. Before that, he helped to establish Al Jazeera Arabic Channel as a Programme Editor from 1996 to 1999.
The other of the two Egyptians, Asmaa Mohamed al-Khatib, is a 25-year-old broadcaster currently living in Turkey with her husband and a seven-month-old son.
“I do not think of returning to Egypt,” she said, adding, “I want to raise my son in peace without fears of prison or murder or intimidation by a tyrant regime,” meaning the government headed by Sisi who has said that the death sentence in question was passed by a court run by an independent judiciary.

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