Andrew Lodge: Why Mohamed Fahmy’s sentence matters

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The recent sentencing of Canadian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy by the Egyptian court, along with his two colleagues, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, should be of grave concern to all those who celebrate democracy and cherish freedom, and recognize the journalism required to sustain these two related edifices.

Fahmy and colleagues were arrested back in December of 2013 while covering the events following the tumultuous military coup in Egypt. They were since detained until their trial this past week, when Fahmy was sentenced to seven years in what are no doubt brutal prison conditions. His colleagues were also sentenced similarly. The context of their arrest and subsequent detention is instructive.

The world stood by, and, in many cases in the West, even cheered when the Egyptian military ousted democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi earlier in 2013 and installed the army’s chief soldier, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In a robust example for the support of tyranny, many western governments, on one level or another, indicated that they preferred a military strongman over the people’s choice for leader. El-Sisi quickly shucked his army uniform for civilian fatigues, allowing leaders around the world to express optimism at the new government and its apparent commitment to democracy.

Support for el-Sisi was not a departure for the West, including Canada, but instead a position consistent with support of authoritarian leaders over the past decades in different locations around the world. In fact, the West had supported el-Sisi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak prior to his deposal by popular protest during the Arab Spring. The ensuing election of Morsi was an uncomfortable interlude which was soon rectified by the military coup, a military funded in significant part by U.S. dollars.

During the upheaval which ultimately led to Morsi’s overthrow, Fahmy and his colleagues were on the ground reporting on protests, including civil rights abuses perpetrated by the Egyptian army, in the wake of the coup. There was no suggestion in their journalism that they showed bias towards Morsi or his Muslim Brotherhood party, unless reporting on nationwide protests is proxy for support.

By any measure, such journalism is important work for those who care about human rights, justice, and the struggle for self-determination anywhere in the world, regardless of one’s opinions on the Muslim Brotherhood and the government their party had formed following the historic elections in 2012.

Likewise, it is not surprising that the military found such reportage offensive and even dangerous and hence took action to detain the men, just as they have detained countless protesters during that period, many of whom are now sentenced to death. The military, now essentially the government, is serious in their mission and they apparently aim to make that point crystalline.

As the father of Peter Greste stated, “This is a very dark time, not only for our family, but for journalism generally.”

Indeed.

It should further be impressed upon our own government here in Canada that such acts are not tolerable. The current administration claims to be working behind the scenes and argues that a “bullhorn” (to borrow from John Baird’s eloquence) is not the effective approach. That may or may not be true. Yet the government is being disingenuous in that it uses the same bullhorn all the time in other circumstances. Think of the Crimean case, to name but the most recent example.

In any event, Canadians should look beyond their own government and ask themselves how much they value information about the world that we live in, and therefore how much they value the work of those who supply this information.

In an era when foreign bureaus of major news organizations are being cut back everywhere, those with the commitment to have their boots on the ground to keep us informed deserve commendation and support, and, in particular, tangible backing when agents who would prefer their voices silenced engage in coercive practices to that end. Beyond the fact that Fahmy’s sentence appears to be a blatant miscarriage of justice, we should all be concerned when the fourth estate comes under attack by the apparatus of any state.

It is virtually self-evident that what happens in the various corners of our world is of critical importance to us all. To not afford journalists the highest of protective measures in order to provide such information is to ignore this absolutely crucial ingredient to a functioning society.

And finally, it is incumbent upon all caring people on the globe to wonder how those other people incarcerated are being dealt with by Egyptian authorities when individuals with foreign passports are being treated with such impunity. The multitude of political prisoners now awaiting the gallows provides a glimmer of response to this question.

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