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Global media have described the seven-to-ten-year prison sentences against three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt as “a blow to free speech”.
The outcry has circled the world.
Since the journalists’ arrest last December, there have been rallies in their support around the world, from Sydney to Gaza and Istanbul. Demonstrators protested peacefully outside Egyptian consulates.
A colleague of the three, Andrew Thomas, said: “It’s an assault on journalism as a whole, and as our t-shirts say and as this banner says: journalism is not a crime!”
Peter Greste (Australian), Mohamed Fahmy (Canadian-Egyptian) and Baher Mohamed (Egyptian) were sentenced for seven, seven and 10 years, respectively.
In the court room, the prosecution’s ‘evidence’ is reported to have included video not remotely connected with Egyptian politics; video of horses from Sky News Arabia; a song by Australian singer Gotye, and a BBC documentary from Somalia.
A fourth Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah al Shamy, who had been on a hunger strike for more than 130 days, was released last week on medical grounds.
Before his release, al Shamy said: “I was doing my job as a reporter, and despite the authorities knowing this, I have been detained for 266 days.”
Al Jazeera had steadfastly called for the journalists’ release and urged other media outlets to carry the story.
In Doha, correspondent Bernard Smith said: “We would like our colleagues to be released immediately from custody in Cairo. They are journalists simply doing their job in Egypt, reporting on a variety of stories from Egypt, reporting all sides of the story from Egypt.”
Observers believe the journalists were effectively caught in the political crossfire between the Egyptian government and Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera. Last summer, the Cairo authorities forced the Arabic language Al Jazeera offices to close, alleging bias in favour of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar is a strong supporter of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi and criticised the crackdown against his Brotherhood political base which followed his removal. The questions over what is left of Egypt’s democratic credentials are now more glaring than ever, three years after autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak was toppled amid hopes for a greater respect for fundamental human rights.
The sentence handed the Al Jazeera journalists comes days after a court in Egypt confirmed death sentences against more than 180 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.