Belfast Telegraph

Al-Jazeera journalists imprisoned by Egypt to ‘teach Qatar a lesson’ for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood

BY ROBERT FISK

Mohamed Fahmy is an angry man. And so he should be. He says that he and his two colleagues from the Qatari-based al-Jazeera channel – Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed – were imprisoned by the Egyptians to “teach Qatar a lesson” because the emirate supported the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

And, in messages passed to The Independent by his family, Mohamed Fahmy lists his grievances against his employers – al-Jazeera, through its own negligence, unwittingly endangered him and his colleagues in the days before and after their arrest.

It’s a sorry story, more so because Mohamed, the bureau chief of al-Jazeera English in Cairo – whom I know personally and with whom I’ve worked in Iraq – is a professional journalist, just like his two fellow prisoners; and they are victims, as he himself says, of “a real ongoing cold war between Egypt and Qatar”.

The oil and gas state created al-Jazeera back in 1996 as a foreign policy project. But the job of Chief Executive Officer has been vacant for months, and the junior management appears to have failed their imprisoned employees when their advice was desperately needed. Mohamed, who holds dual Canadian and Egyptian citizenship, worked for The Los Angeles Times and CNN before joining al-Jazeera as Egypt bureau chief, and he hinted at his predicament in a written text he sent to the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) in Toronto this week.

“I took the job [at al-Jazeera] as a personal challenge after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood on 3 July 2013, five months before our arrest,” he says, “… several months later it became evident that I had inherited a sinking ship but we kept bobbing in the ocean with no compass or a watchtower back at headquarters in Qatar to look out for our safe path.”

According to his family in Cairo, Mohamed several times complained to al-Jazeera – after the authorities closed their office in Cairo – that they should not try to operate from the Marriott Hotel in the city and pretend that they could play “hide and seek” with the police. The Egyptian government was later to claim, fraudulently, that they were assisting the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood after the army staged a coup against the elected President Mohamed Morsi. In fact, Mohamed Fahmy publicly demonstrated against the Brotherhood when Morsi was in power.

He says that the Egyptians were particularly upset with al-Jazeera’s Mubasher Misr Egypt Live Egyptian channel, and he asked his head office not to use his own reports and those of his colleagues on Mubasher.

“But they did use our reports on Mubasher – and even invited guests to comment on them in the Qatar studio,” Mohamed told The Independent via his family. Al-Jazeera, it should be added, say they cannot find evidence of this happening.

Mohamed, however, had other complaints – about the lawyer whom the channel appointed to defend the three journalists and about al-Jazeera’s decision, via international arbitration, to demand $150m in compensation from the Egyptian government when their three journalists were already in jail.

Insiders at al-Jazeera suggest that Mohamed, who is still suffering the effects of a broken shoulder, may have misunderstood the efforts made on his behalf. Others say that when the journalists were arrested, many of al-Jazeera’s top management were in the United States to launch the channel in the US, and that junior management left behind in Qatar was negligent in responding day-by-day to their predicament. Fahmy says that he was told to get on with his editorial duties “and leave the politics to al-Jazeera”.

In his eloquent message to the CJFE in Toronto, Fahmy says that he knew Steven Sotloff, the journalist beheaded by Isis earlier this year, describing him as a man who had “a genuine hunger for truth”, reflecting that the Egyptian government referred to himself, Greste and Mohamed as “terrorists”.

“Those killers are the terrorists, not Peter (Greste), (Mohamed) Fahmy or Baher (Mohamed),” he wrote, adding that “there is a book to be written about the bigotry between Egypt and Qatar that left us expendable behind bars.” Mohamed is in fact writing that book, to be titled The Marriott Cell – the phrase the Egyptians used about him and his colleagues when they were arrested in the hotel.

In his message to The Independent, Mohamed Fahmy says that he is “very, very angry” to be caught in the middle of an international dispute. His parents are seeing ministers and others to attempt to secure the journalists’ release. He believes that President Sissi, the general who staged a coup against Morsi, is himself trying to secure their freedom.

“I’ve spoken to some journalists who’ve told me how al-Jazeera did not secure us, did not secure permits for us… I said (to them): ‘Why are we in the Marriott?… I told them I had good contacts in the ministries, in the intelligence services’. I said: ‘This is not right – you are going to get us arrested.’ They said: ‘No, leave this to us. Stick to the editorial side.’”

Fahmy is now personally represented by international lawyer Amal Alamudin and is optimistic – despite the 7-inch medical pin in his shoulder. But he says in his message to the CJFE that he “recently found out that most of the staff in the al-Jazeera newsroom back in Qatar were vocally appalled at the timing of this retaliatory $150m lawsuit (against Egypt).”

In an obvious reference to al-Jazeera, he adds that “senior network managers must… keep an open dialogue with governments hosting their reporters in order to avoid giving these autocratic bullies any excuse to arrest or kill their foot soldiers.”

Mohamed Fahmy’s criticisms were put to al-Jazeera. Osama al-Saeed, al-Jazeera’s spokesman, claims that al-Jazeera “is the only Arabic outlet airing in Egypt with coverage from all spectrums of opinion… we have been on the receiving end of an intimidation campaign. People may criticise our reaction to this challenging situation, but it must be remembered that the responsibility for jailing journalists lies not with the news organisation, but with the jailors.”

Which means that the story is far from over.

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