Sue Turton, Dominic Kane, center, and Peter Greste, at a press conference in CPJ's New York office. The Al-Jazeera journalists, who were convicted in absentia in Egypt, are calling on President el-Sisi to intervene in their cases. (AP/Julie Jacobson)
Sue Turton, Dominic Kane, center, and Peter Greste, at a press conference in CPJ's New York office. The Al-Jazeera journalists, who were convicted in absentia in Egypt, are calling on President el-Sisi to intervene in their cases. (AP/Julie Jacobson)

Beyond the pardons, press freedom still under threat in Egypt

Today the Committee to Protect Journalists hosted a press conference for three Al-Jazeera journalists who have been convicted in absentia in Egypt. The journalists expressed solidarity with other members of the press who have been charged by the Egyptian government, and called on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to intervene in their cases.

On September 26, a few days after el-Sisi pardoned imprisoned Al-Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, the president told The Associated Press that he is open to clemency to other journalists who have been tried and convicted in absentia. El-Sisi said that his government is “always keen on sorting out issues and problems, especially those that relate to journalists and to the media personnel.”

El-Sisi told the AP that to avoid interfering with the judicial process pardons can be issued only after a sentence has been handed down. But with a record number of journalists in jail in Egypt, the president will have to do more than make high-profile pardons­–like the one last week in which 100 political prisoners were released– if he is to improve his country’s press freedom record.

CPJ research shows that currently at least 18 journalists are behind bars in Egypt for their work. At least seven others have been released on bail after being imprisoned on pretrial detention orders in the past six months. In these cases, the investigations against the journalists remain open and prosecutors could request arrests at any moment. CPJ has documented at least 12 cases of journalists who have been convicted in absentia.

The three journalists at CPJ today are among seven Al-Jazeera journalists convicted in absentia in August, alongside Fahmy and Baher, on charges of “tarnishing Egypt’s image” and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt has labeled a terrorist group. The seven journalists face sentences ranging from three to 10 years in prison, according to reports.

The three journalists said they fear being extradited to Egypt if they travel, and that the convictions have made it difficult for them to work.

Peter Greste, an Australian journalist who spent more than a year in prison before he was deported to his home country in February, is among the seven convicted in absentia. Greste, who was not included in el-Sisi’s pardon last week, said at the press conference today that although he is no longer in jail he does not feel free because of the conviction hanging over him. His colleagues, British journalists Dominic Kane and Sue Turton, said the convictions have undermined their careers and left them in constant fear of being extradited to Egypt. Turton, who quit her job as an Al-Jazeera correspondent, said today that she had to give up her job as an international correspondent because of travel restrictions imposed on her by the case.

Four Al-Jazeera journalists from Egypt–Mohamed Fawzy, Alaa Bayoumi, Khalil Bahnacy, and Anas Abdel Wahab–who were convicted in absentia while living in Qatar, are unable to return to their home country, according to a statement from Al-Jazeera. Turton said that three of the journalists didn’t cover Egypt during the period of the case.

Journalists working for Al-Jazeera are not the only ones affected. Rena Netjes, a correspondent for Dutch newspaper Parool, was convicted in absentia, alongside Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed, in August.

In a separate case, Al-Jazeera talk show host Ahmad Mansour was detained in Germany in June after Egyptian authorities issued an arrest warrant, according to reports. Mansour, who was on his way to Qatar, had been convicted in absentia by an Egyptian court on politically motivated charges, the reports said. Mansour was released two days later after a German court refused to comply with the extradition order, according to news reports.

Germany may have refused to extradite a journalist, but in Lebanon Mosad Albarbary, former administrative manager of Misr 25, a TV channel affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested at a Beirut airport in April 2014 following a request by the Egyptian government. The journalist was in Beirut to reopen and manage a satellite station, according to reports. Albarbary was deported to Cairo and sentenced to life in prison on charges of publishing false news. He was tried alongside 50 other defendants, including five journalists–Abdullah al-Fakharany, Samhi Mustafa, Mohamed al-Adly, Hassan el-Kabbani, and Hany Salah el-Deen–who were also sentenced to life imprisonment. Their appeal is due to take place on October 1, the journalists’ lawyer, Mahmoud Amer, told CPJ.

Three other Egyptian journalists convicted in absentia, according to news reports, are:

  • Gamal Nassar, a political scientist and journalist, presented several TV shows in Egypt, including “Dialogue at Heart” on the privately owned Al-Tahrir TV channel. He was sentenced to life in prison in absentia in the same trial as Albarbary, according to reports. Nassar, who was convicted of running an operations room for the Muslim Brotherhood, told CPJ in May that he was not in Egypt during the period on which his conviction is based. Nassar, who lives in Qatar, said he believes he was targeted for speaking out against the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
  • Moataz Matar, a presenter for the show “With Moataz,” on opposition station Elsharq TV, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in July. Matar, who is based in Turkey, was convicted of spreading false news, attempting to overthrow the government, and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. The charges are linked to leaked audio recordings, allegedly of el-Sisi and other government officials, which Matar broadcast on his show in February, according to news reports. The Egyptian government denied the authenticity of the leaked recordings.
  • Mohamed Nasser, another presenter who used to work for ElSharq TV and now presents a show called “Men Masr” (From Egypt), was sentenced earlier this month to eight years in prison on charges of spreading false news and inciting violence. The prosecutor said he would ensure the journalist, who lives in Turkey, would be arrested if he returned to Egypt. Nasser reported on several sensitive cases and ridiculed espionage charges against former president Morsi on his show.

Quashing the convictions of these journalists will not address the plight of journalists in jail or under threat of imprisonment in Egypt. But el-Sisi’s pardons and his comments to the AP suggest an admission of injustice. The pardons are a first step on a long road of reform before the president can be taken seriously on his promise at the United Nations General Assembly Monday to further the realization of Egypt’s aspirations for freedom, dignity, and social justice.