Calculating the cost of censorship in media
“I’ve been locked in my cell 24 hours a day for the past 10 days, allowed out only for visits to the prosecutor for questioning…. I am in Tora Prison — a sprawling complex where the authorities routinely violate legally enshrined prisoners’ rights, denying visits from lawyers, keeping cells locked for 20 hours a day, and so on.”
This is only an excerpt from the heartfelt letter Al Jazeera correspondent and Australian citizen Peter Greste scrawled from the inside of an Egyptian prison earlier this year. But his words warn of grave consequences for journalists seeking the truth in any corrupt country, not just Egypt.
A free and open press is a cornerstone of any democracy. As Egypt’s government strengthens its chokehold on truth-seeking journalists, other nations — whose leaders are threatened by democracy — may follow suit.
Greste, alongside his colleagues and fellow Al Jazeera producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed have been imprisoned in Cairo since Dec. 29. They are accused of having broadcast “false” news, harming national security and operating without required permits. In a subsequent hearing Monday, the trio was denied bail despite police witnesses refusing to provide details and the failure of the court to procure “a shred of evidence,” Greste told ABC News.
The Egyptian government has closely monitored Al Jazeera possibly because its head office is in Qatar, a country that has provided refuge for members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is a fiercely Islamic group that supported Egypt’s ousted president Mohammed Morsi. The current Egyptian government views the group as a terrorist organization. Accused of supporting the brotherhood by collecting facts and interviews with members who possessed their ideals, the Al Jazeera trio and news station have firmly maintained that they are independent from the group.
“We had been doing exactly as any responsible, professional journalist would — recording and trying to make sense of the unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness, and balance that our imperfect trade demands,” Greste maintained in his Jan. 25 letter.
“When the other side, political or otherwise, is a ‘terrorist’ there is no neutral way…. How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”
Photo courtesy of the UK National Archives
Indeed. By silencing one side of the debate, a journalist would be foregoing one of the profession’s most fundamental stepping-stones — balance. An unfailing commitment to ethical, responsible journalism should not be punished. Rather, the work of Greste and his fellow Al Jazeera colleagues should be upheld as examples of outstanding journalism for they are the type of fearless, balanced journalists we need — journalists who will stand in the face of tyranny to bring truth to the world.
Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian described the trial, which has been repeatedly delayed, as a “farce.” Boxes and boxes of irrelevant belongings, which were gathered in a raid on the journalists’ hotel room, have been presented as evidence, Kingsley noted.
The entire situation is a clear demonstration that not only is the imprisonment of Greste and his colleagues violating many basic human rights, but so too is it impeding the fundamental rights of journalists to operate a free and honest press.
When an individual’s rights are infringed upon, it is the job of journalists to bring that truth to light. But when a journalist’s rights are infringed upon, society loses its outlet for this information and the pendulum swings to favor the corrupt, censoring side of the world. Letting this happen would have catastrophic consequences for democracy everywhere.
The incident has sparked an international outcry from many human rights activists, freedom of speech advocates, and journalists worldwide, who believe that Greste and his colleagues are being used unfairly as scapegoats. Egypt is warning reporters all over the world of the dangers of criticizing the government and demonstrating its willingness to punish those who don’t agree to censor those it disagrees with.
Not backing down from the threat, representatives from the BBC, The New York Times, and The Economist (among others) have banded together to sign a statement calling for the immediate release of the detained journalists. A demonstration was held in front of the Egyptian embassy in London during the first day of the trial.
Photo courtesy of Ahmed Abd El-FatahMichelle Stainstreet, the general secretary of the United Kingdom’s National Union of Journalists, made a strong statement in her meeting with the Egyptian ambassador. She said that the labeling of reporters as terrorists wouldn’t vindicate the severe injustices they suffered while imprisoned.
“All journalists trying to cover an important story critical to Egypt’s history are being targeted. Six have been killed covering events, others have been injured, imprisoned or had equipment confiscated,” Stainstreet said, in a report from the Egypt Solidarity Initiative.
“The international community insists that journalists should be free to do their jobs.”
Yet some, like Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, the Egyptian minister for investment and foreign trade, remain unsympathetic to the plight of the Al Jazeera prisoners.
“Even journalists have to abide by the law of the land. [These journalists] came to Egypt, worked as a journalist without a permit, without taking the legal steps that are required to act in Egypt,” he told BBC Newshour.
It is true that any journalist who willingly travels to a dangerous part of the world is assuming a certain amount of risk and should be prepared to handle it. However, if journalists allow censorship to prevent them from doing their job, it could lead to even more countries trying to silence the press.
Once-hopeful overseas correspondents might heed the warnings and become discouraged from pursuing life as a transcontinental political journalist, and rightfully so. The risks of imprisonment, robbery and kidnapping are already extremely high.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 211 journalists were jailed worldwide in 2013 alone — the second worst number of all time. Reporters find themselves asking why innocent people should risk being used as pawns in the brutal power struggle and their employers find themselves wondering if it is even ethically appropriate to send reporters to these dangerous areas.
Some, myself included, argue that these risks pale in comparison to the loss of freedom of speech if journalists submit to censorship.
Foreign correspondence is a facet of journalism that the free world cannot do without. Positive social change and global awareness would be severely impeded if incidents like this stop journalists from travelling to areas of conflict or corruption.
We owe it to future generations to not let that happen.
Calgary Journal reporter Megan Mackay is exploring media ethics as part of the Bachelor of Communication-Journalism degree at Mount Royal University.