By Rick Mitry
Having once been regarded as an alternative platform to the western media for the dissemination of information concerning the Middle East region, the Qatari owned Al Jazeera now finds itself with associated ties to not only Egypt’s former rulers, the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, but also the jihadists at the forefront of the western media’s attention in the Middle East, Islamic State.
Since Present Mohammed Morsi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted by el-Sisi in 2013, the relations between Egypt and Qatar reached boiling point. It was during this time that Al Jazeera Journalists Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptians Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed became embroiled in the geo-political rift with deep religious and ideological fractures.
Al Jazeera had been front and centre of this political encounter since their coverage of the Gaza conflict in 2009, with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declaring that Al Jazeera and Qatar had launched a media war against Egypt.
Since then, Al Jazeera’s ‘prejudicial’ politically aligned reporting was believed to be propagating virtues of political Islam with some accusing the media outlet of having served the Islamist’s agenda, becoming a media voice for controversial Islamic clerics and groups, since its inception in 1990.
In 2013, as a result of reporting for Al Jazeera in Egypt, Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years imprisonment for aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. Baher Mohammad was sentenced to 10 years. The Al Jazeera journalists had been operating in Egypt at the time under ‘tourist visas’, which Fahmy had contacted Al Jazeera to correct. Such action was not taken before Egyptian officials stormed the hotel room of the journalists.
Despite the worldwide media attention on Egypt and the journalists, their employers remained somewhat unscathed as to their involvement in the affairs. During this time, tensions subsided when Qatar pulled the Egyptian channel of Al Jazeera from televising in Egypt. It had largely been used as a mouthpiece for el-Sisi’s political opponents, ironically those of the Muslim Brotherhood who, by extension Qatar had supported. It was during this time that, after worldwide protests, the President of Egypt deported Greste back to Australia and ordered a re-trial for him and his colleagues. I personally assisted members of the Federal Parliament of Australia as well as the State Parliament of NSW draft and move motions in support of Greste’s release. I also advised him and his family on strategy for the conduct of his trial in Cairo.
The re-trial began again in Cairo on 1 June 2015. Prior to the re-trial, the presiding judge ordered that Peter Greste attend in person. Greste has requested that he appear via video link. This has never happened before in an Egyptian court and it is unlikely that the court will permit him to do so. The judge said that Greste will be considered “in absentia” if he does not physically appear before the court, which under Egyptian law means he could be convicted by default.
If Greste is convicted, it would mean that he could not go to any country which has an extradition treaty with Egypt. That includes countries across the Middle East, Africa, some countries in Asia and Latin America. It would be very limiting for his work as a journalist.
Meanwhile, Mohammad Fahmy, before the trial, filed a law suit against his former employer Al-Jazeera in a Canadian court alleging that it was the network’s negligence that led to his arrest and is claiming $100 million in compensation, punitive and remedial damages. Fahmy is a naturalised Canadian who gave up his Egyptian citizenship so that he could be deported to Canada and not face trial. That did not eventuate. He was the Cairo Bureau chief of Al-Jazeera’s English network.
Fahmy’s lawsuit alleges that the network failed to take heed of the political and legal situation in Egypt before and after his time working for it in Cairo which includes the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood supported former President Mohammad Morsi and the establishment of a military backed government.
Fahmy claims that the network’s failures include equivocating on securing Egyptian press accreditation for him, paying anti-government activists to produce broadcast footage on an affiliate Al-Jazeera channel that was banned in the country, and re-broadcasting reports that Fahmy and Greste produced for Al-Jazeera English with Arabic voice-overs on the banned channel.
Fahmy claims that the banned Al-Jazeera Egypt Live was used to illegally broadcast inflammatory material in an attempt to undermine the government. He also claims that re-broadcasts created the appearance that he and his staff members were producing content for Al-Jazeera Egypt Live in defiance of Egyptian law. According to Fahmy, despite multiple warnings sent to Al-Jazeera network managers, the network continued to make such broadcasts.
The lawsuit alleges that Al-Jazeera’s actions were “high handed, represented and showed a wanton disregard for Fahmy’s freedom, health, safety and security”. The launching, before the conclusion of the first trial against the three journalists, by Al-Jazeera of a $150 million lawsuit against Egypt was mind-boggling in that it did nothing but harm their case. In fact his Egyptian lawyer, Farag Fathy Farag quit after a dispute with Al-Jazeera about this lawsuit claiming that the network is more concerned with fighting the Egyptian government than freeing its employees. Fahmy claims that Al-Jazeera is continuing to defame him as a result of his action against them.
Peter Greste has said that “my view is that the trial in Egypt is against the three of us as individuals…there is no doubt that Al Jazeera made mistakes. Whether or not they should be accountable for that is something we’ll deal with through the Canadian system”.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned after the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi, whom the group had backed. After it was banned the brotherhood was publicly supported by Qatar, the owners of Al-Jazeera. It is clear that the three journalists were used as pawns within a larger dispute between Egypt and Qatar. Fahmy said “the Egyptians put me in prison, the Qataris contributed to my detention by mishandling issues with Al-Jazeera’s presence in Egypt… the case is about freedom of speech only in the sense that three award winning journalists have been put behind bars. However the real issue is the ongoing cold war between Egypt and Qatar, the result in us being used to settle scores”.
Mr. Fahmy has stated that Al Jazeera managers defending the company’s actions have been “parroting” instructions from its chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani. “The verdict killed two birds with one stone,” Mr. Fahmy wrote. “Egypt sent a clear message to my fellow reporters to toe the government’s line, and delivered a punch in the face to Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Mr. Fahmy added that he was not satisfied with Al Jazeera’s choice of lawyers and sought his own representation. His lawyers, including renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (who has always called the trial a “political show trial”), waived portions of their legal fees. Al Anstey, the CEO of Al Jazeera English, said that the company was covering 100 per cent of Mr. Fahmy’s Egyptian legal fees. The amount reimbursed by Al Jazeera does not include Ms. Clooney’s fees.
Rick Mitry is a Sydney based lawyer and an advisor to the Greste family.