On the Greste case

Australian journalist Peter Greste, who works for Al Jazeera, has been sentenced to seven years jail in Egypt, along with other reporters at the news agency.  In a quick response to the convictions, I want to comment on the Australian reaction, the broader nature of Al Jazeera’s reporting in Egypt, and put the case in the context of the military coup last year.

In the trial, prosecutors sought sentences of up to twenty years for the terrible ‘offences’ of supporting the MB. Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were part of a larger group of twenty journalists, all charged with similar crimes, and with joining the MB. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has condemned the verdict:

The court proceedings have been farcical from the outset and there has not been a shred of evidence presented by the prosecution that in any way implicates the journalists in the charges of defaming Egypt and having ties to the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood.

Amnesty International is running a petition on the case, updated now that Greste and his colleagues at Al Jazeera have been convicted. Their response to the charge that Greste has been ‘airing misleading news’ is that the three journalists are prisoners of conscience.

There’s been sympathetic reporting on the case at the Guardian and the Australian.

News Limited reported on the conviction of Greste, and noted Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s reaction, saying the Australian government was ‘shocked’ and ‘dismayed’, both by the ‘fact that a sentence has been imposed’ and by its ‘severity’. Bishop called Greste a ‘well-respected Australian journalist’, which is an interesting development, because not so long ago Al Jazeera was a little less respectable in the West. Bishop even commented on Greste’s ‘devastated’ family, and said she had made ‘constant representations’ to Egypt about this case.

On Twitter, Bill Shorten said, ‘Awful news about Peter Greste – journalists should not be jailed for doing their job’, and Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek was ‘shocked’ too, as was Greens leader Christine Milne. Before the verdict, ABC reported that Tony Abbott had also weighed in on the case. Abbott said Greste was merely ‘reporting’ on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), not supporting it.

For his part, Greste has written two articles on his predicament at al Jazeera. He says, quite reasonably, he does not consider himself a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but saw it as his professional duty to give the Brotherhood a fair hearing. He asks, ‘How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?’ He regards his work in Egypt as ‘pretty mundane reporting’ – three weeks, where he had done little more than ‘tread water’. While Greste has written dozens of articles for Al Jazeera online, none of them before his arrest were about Egypt, let alone the MB, which is hardly the profile of a supporter of the Brotherhood. Greste concluded that those who support the state are ‘seen as safe and deserving of liberty. Anything else is a threat that needs to be crushed.’

The strong Australian reaction to the arrest and now conviction of Greste is a good thing, and hopefully sustained pressure will lead to his release.

For reporters, Egypt is a quite terrible place. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a report on the deadliest countries for journalists in 2013. The worst was Syria, followed by Iraq and Egypt. Considering the massive death toll, and ongoing civil war in Syria, and the newly erupting civil war in Iraq, that’s pretty shocking.

In 2013, six journalists were killed in Egypt, three while covering the massacre of non-violent anti-coup protesters in August 2013 at Rabaa al-Adawiya. Egypt also sneaked its way onto the top ten countries that jail the most journalists. It had held none in 2012. According to CPJ in May this year, 16 journalists have been arrested in Egypt since the anti-Morsi coup last year. A few weeks ago, CPJ reacted with dismay to the 15 year jail sentence given to blogger Alaa abd el-Fattah, and

at least 24 other defendants, on charges of attacking a police officer and protesting the government’s ban on unsanctioned protests. Dozens of critical voices, including journalists and political and human rights advocates, are behind bars in Egypt.

Furthermore, over 65 journalists have been detained since the anti-Morsi coup last year. Abd el Fattah previously was imprisoned in 2011 for protesting religious discrimination, but public campaigning on his behalf liberated him after two months.

What type of journalism does Al Jazeera practice? The truth is: its journalism is mixed. It gained a lot of respect in the Arab world and beyond for putting into practice its slogan: ‘The Opinion and The Other Opinion.’

Nonetheless, it is subject to the limitations of being based in Qatar, and following the foreign policy interests of the Emir of Qatar, its dictator. As Shadi Rahimi explained, Al Jazeera has been ‘widely denounced in Egypt as mouthpieces for the Muslim Brotherhood’. In July 2013, 22 members of Al Jazeera resigned over its ‘biased coverage’ of Egypt – one journalist described it as a ‘propaganda channel’ for MB.

In October 2012, As’ad AbuKhalil reported on a conversation he had with a source at Al Jazeera. His source said that ‘the Tunisia office is now run and staffed practically by An-Nahdah party, and that the Cairo office is staffed by Ikhwan [Arabic for Muslim Brotherhood], like the office in Turkey.’ In July 2012, Sultan Sooud al Qassemi wrote of Al Jazeera’s ‘blatant bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood’, noting that the MB had reciprocally offered congratulations and support back at al Jazeera. Al Qassemi traced this support to the alliance between Qatar and the MB. He observed:

Al Jazeera Arabic’s pro-Brotherhood methodology is two-pronged. First, it predominantly hosts guests that it can be fairly certain would be gentle in their criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, and second, its anchors refrain from asking Muslim Brotherhood members and spokesmen embarrassing questions.

As Patrick Cockburn notes, besides its reporting on Egypt, Al Jazeera has also ‘ruined its reputation by uncritical repetition of the wilder claims of the opposition and the FSA’ in Syria.

Thus, while Australians might naturally reject the allegations against Greste, Egyptians will probably not be particularly shocked that a journalist at Al Jazeera being accused of sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nonetheless, that does not mean that there is substance to the charges against Greste and his colleagues. Indeed, Mahmoud Salem dismissed the case as

so poorly fabricated that it should have been thrown out of court months ago. [The journalists] are accused of being a secret Muslim Brotherhood cell and supporting ‘terrorist’ activities with their reporting. Evidence against them so far included an animal documentary, hard drives filled with pictures of Greste’s parents and unintelligible audio recordings. Besides refusing to release them on bail despite the lack of evidence, the judge in this case has also decreed that for the defense to access and view the “evidence” of the prosecution, they should pay the prosecution $180,000.

He concluded that

Fahmy and Greste are facing a kangaroo court and possible sentencing simply because the police and population hate Al Jazeera and its state-backer Qatar, and this is a way to “punish both” and show “them our strength.”

This persecution of journalists in kangaroo courts should be put in the broader context of other dubious courtroom displays. Esam al-Amin, a particularly brilliant journalist who has reported with great insight on Egypt, compared the March trials of protesters in Egypt this year with the Nuremberg Trials from 1945–46. Al-Amin noted that, even after 40 million had died in Europe and with the accused facing charges of crimes against humanity, the trial took 316 days – and only 12 of the 23 accused were sentenced to death.

In Egypt, the court sat for 100 minutes – and 529 of the 545 people accused were given capital sentences. One government witness was heard by the judges and no defence witnesses were allowed to testify – oh, and at least three of those sentenced to death were actually dead before the protests had even taken place.

This judicially-supported slaughter follows the repeated killing of non-violent protesters since the military coup against Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected President of Egypt. As Al-Amin noted, Egyptians voted ‘for the choice of the Islamist parties’ in free and fair elections and referenda six times: March 2011, November 2011-January 2012, May-June 2012, and in December 2012. Norman Finkelstein has pointed out that parliamentary elections were scheduled for a few months after the military coup took place. If the population had indeed turned on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, they could have won the elections and impeached Morsi. In fact, Al-Amin argued that what happened was that the massively overhyped demonstrations demanding Morsi’s ouster only amounted to about half a million protesters in Tahrir Square and about one or two million protesters across Egypt over a ‘day or two’.

On 19 July, Al-Amin wrote that

by July 8, the army killed over 80 pro-Morsi demonstrators and injured over 1000 when they were praying and protesting peacefully in front of the Presidential Guards Club, where Morsi is believed to be detained. So far, more than 270 people have been killed and thousands injured by the army and security forces across Egypt.

Al-Amin reported that 69 percent of Egyptians reportedly rejected the military coup, according to a respected polling centre. But the massacres continued – perhaps 2600 were killed by the military in unarmed and peaceful protests in August last year.

The coup has fostered repulsive, hateful attitudes towards Islamists. Al-Amin wrote

within minutes of the ouster of Morsi, at least nine pro-Morsi TV stations were taken off the air. Remarkably, the Egyptian media, whether official or private, is precipitously singing to the same tune. With the exception of Al-Jazeera, rarely would one now find any criticism of Gen. Sisi or the coup on any TV channel. For weeks the Egyptian media has been relentless in portraying the MB and their supporters as violent, terrorists, extremists, foreign agents, conspirators, and murderers. The vicious campaign has the combined features of fascism and McCarthyism. It embodies the hate filled 1930s campaign of Nazi Germany against the Jews, and the ugly media-led incitement of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. It has even reached the point where the state and liberal media or government officials and secular elites have rarely shown any sympathy to the killed or injured at the hands of the army or the police, as if they were foreign enemies or dangerous criminals, and not simply their political opponents.

Patrick Cockburn similarly observed that

the Brotherhood are demonised as ‘terrorists’ who must be exterminated. Propaganda on state-run media is as hate-filled and mendacious as anything on Baghdad television during Saddam’s bloody campaigns against Shia and Kurdish insurgents. A few Brotherhood supporters may have guns but most are demonstrably peaceful and unarmed, as is illustrated by the casualty figures.

Al-Amin also noted – correctly – that the Western reaction to the military coup has been timid at best. In August, US Secretary of State John Kerry defended the coup, claiming that it was ‘restoring democracy’. The Muslim Brotherhood alleged that the US had urged it to accept the military takeover. There is evidence that the US financially supported the opposition groups that overthrew Morsi, and in August last year, as the worst massacres took place, the Obama government was approving new weapons deals with Egypt. Al-Amin also recorded the support of reactionary Arab countries for the coup against Morsi.
This matters, because how we frame the conviction of Greste matters.

Greste shouldn’t be in jail for his journalism, because no one should be in jail for journalism.

It is natural that those concerned with his unjust imprisonment should wish to dissociate him from the Muslim Brotherhood, because there is no evidence that he does support that organisation. Nonetheless, we should put his case in the context of Western-backed repression and the outright slaughter of peaceful dissenters in the aftermath of the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has backed by regional Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and supported by people who identify as Egypt’s secular liberals.

The brutality in Egypt since the July coup has been shocking and appalling, and has warranted far harsher condemnation – and, more importantly, action – than it has so far received. While it is good that the Australian government has supported the rights of a journalist unjustly imprisoned, it has yet to speak out for an entire country unjustly imprisoned.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

More by Michael Brull ›

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  1. You’re right to say the heart of the matter is that we must resist banning material and persecuting people just because of the ideas advocated in/by them. We have a space called journalism which must be preserved for airing a broad spectrum of views, as a way of saving violence not stoking it. Your conclusion is also reasonable but the Australian government is unreasonable. For instance, the current government’s stand on Sri Lankan Tamils recently contributed to a Tamil asylum seeker suiciding. In fact Tamil Tigers can be framed as fighters for freedom and independence. Many Australians don’t have the opportunity to read much of the background or appreciate conditions and dilemmas faced by such people in other countries. We, i.e. our ruling government, is imprisoning refugees and Australians, especially Aboriginal Australians in increasing numbers. My question is: Do you think that Greste’s defence’s criticism that the Australian government did not support it enough before the judgement was made is justifiable?

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