Since staging a coup against the elected government of Mohamed Mursi in July, Egypt’s de facto ruler and military head Gen Abdul Fatah Al Sissi has turned the state media into a propaganda apparatus for the military-backed government.
This was evident when on December 19, security forces raided a Cairo hotel room being used as a production office by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English channel and arrested the production team that included Peter Greste, an Australian journalist, and Mohamed Fahmi, an Egyptian-Canadian television producer.
Greste, an acclaimed journalist who had worked for the BBC and other organisations, sought to persuade authorities through a letter sent from Cairo’s Tora prison that they were caught in the middle of a political struggle and were detained without any charges. But last week prosecutors charged the two scribes and 18 others with backing Muslim Brotherhood and broadcasting false information. Three other foreign nationals also were charged: Two Britons who are outside Egypt and Dutch freelancer Rena Netjes, who fled the country on Monday.
Egypt’s crackdown has caused concern to the UN’s human rights office and elicited protests from Washington as well as rights groups about press freedom in the troubled country. The latest criticism came from Germany as the country’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmi, voiced concern over media freedom in Egypt, which has detained a number of Al Jazeera broadcast journalists accused of being part of a “terror cell”.
The German minister, at a joint press conference in Berlin, said that “it was important for bilateral relations as well as for the political process in North Africa that Egypt succeeds in the transition to a consolidated democracy.” Berlin’s concern also came in the backdrop of an attack by a crowd on two journalists and a driver working for German ARD public television while they were covering a car bomb blast that struck the Cairo police headquarters.
When the deposed autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak was in power, a foreign journalist could spend time with members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, who roundly condemned the autocratic leader. These days the same conversation can land journalists in court on charges of aiding a ‘terrorist group’, a sign of where the country is headed three years after a popular uprising raised hopes of greater freedom. A country where the domestic media, with a few notable exceptions, has taken its lead from the street and strongly backed the state’s version of events, while journalists who report the truth are being charged with collaborating with ‘terror cell’ will be sending a wrong message. Egypt’s rulers should act immediately to uphold media freedom at any cost.