Egypt vs Al Jazeera: Regime’s arrest of 20 journalists from Qatar-backed channel for conspiring with outlawed Muslim Brotherhood condemned by human rights groups

... but given Qatar’s politics it is hardly surprising

Cairo

Following the toppling of Mohamed Morsi last summer, thousands of his Islamist supporters remained camped out in two tent cities on either side of Cairo.

Why, they often asked visiting international reporters, were there no Egyptian journalists covering their protest? From their point of view, there only ever appeared to be one major Arab network broadcasting from the camp - the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera.

This week the network appeared to be paying the price for its devotion to reporting the story of Egypt's embattled Islamists.

On Wednesday the Egyptian authorities referred 20 of the network's reporters to trial in a case which human rights groups have warned will pose a serious threat to journalists working in post-revolutionary Egypt.

"It is very disturbing," said Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship. "It looks like a full-scale attempt to intimidate journalists and press freedom." The bare facts of the case make for stark reading. The 20 defendants, including four foreigners, were charged with joining or aiding a terrorist organisation and endangering national security.

The identities of all the accused have not yet been made public. But they include three men working for Al Jazeera English who were detained in December when security forces raided their Cairo hotel room.

Peter Greste, an award-winning Australian reporter, was one of those arrested during the raid, along with Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian. Two Britons and a Dutch citizen have also been charged, although their identities are still unclear.

Listing its accusations in a statement, prosecutors said that the 20 journalists used two suites in a Cairo hotel to establish a media centre for the Muslim Brotherhood - a group which last month was declared a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian authorities.

The statement added that the defendants had "manipulated pictures" to create "unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state". They also allegedly broadcast scenes to aid the Muslim Brotherhood "in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion".

Al Jazeera cameraman Mohammed Badr appeared in a Cairo court in December; 20 more of the channel's employees face criminal charges Al Jazeera cameraman Mohammed Badr appeared in a Cairo court in December; 20 more of the channel's employees face criminal charges (AP)
Observers said that the decision to try journalists on terror-related charges is unprecedented.

Human-rights workers have also heaped scorn upon the accusations. "It's a huge campaign to attack press freedom," said Gamal Eid, director of the Cairo-based Arabic Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI). "To work for Al Jazeera or any other news organisation is not a crime."

But the decision to charge the Al Jazeera reporters - which comes after a wave of arrests targeting politicians and activists who have dared to criticise the leaders of the current regime - is no ordinary example of authoritarian oppression.

The arrests are but one part of a wider crackdown on the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which has seen hundreds of the organsation's members killed and many more go underground for fear of arrest. The crackdown has drawn international condemnation. But in a rare voice of support for current administration, Tony Blair called for the international community to get behind the leadership in the country, after a meeting on Wednesday with military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

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During an interview with Sky News Arabia, Mr Blair, who had previously given his backing to Hosni Mubarak, accused the Muslim Brotherhood of "taking the country away from its basic values of hope and progress". He gave his support to the actions of the military, who helped to depose Mohamed Morsi last July, saying they had acted "at the will of the people".

Analysts say it is rooted in a bitter enmity between the Egyptian authorities and the Qatari royal family - an enmity born out of the intricate geo-political rivalries of the Middle East, and which has grown even more corrosive due to the vagaries of Egypt's chaotic insurrection.

Even before last summer's popular coup against Mohamed Morsi, Al Jazeera had a reputation among many Egyptians for promulgating a world view perceived as being overtly favourable towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It was blatantly a channel that pretty obviously chose a line which matched the Brotherhood's," said Sherif Taher, a leading member of the secular Al Wafd Party. "It was not something they were trying to hide. They were aligned with them 100 per cent."

But following the military putsch against Mohamed Morsi, when the army ousted Egypt's first democratically elected leader following a wave of popular protest, the channel's tone grew even more strident - giving succour to embattled Islamists, but enraging the growing number of critics, both in government and on the street.

"Their coverage on the Arabic channel was disgusting," said Sultan al Qassemi, a political commentator based in the UAE. "I would be watching Al Jazeera Arabic and I would want to give them a call to let them know how ridiculous they were being."

Even fellow employees of the media group had concerns. "The coverage on the Arabic channel was terrible," said one former reporter for Al Jazeera English - the widely respected sister channel which works under separate management.

The origins of Al Jazeera's editorial line can be traced back to the strategic predilections of the Qatari royal family, a dynasty which since the start of the Arab uprisings has committed itself to riding in political pillion with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Analysts have admitted to being mystified as to why Qatar - almost alone among its Islamist-fearing neighbours - decided to set itself on such a track. But the most convincing theory is that the ruling sheikhs, desperate for political clout, believed that the Brothers could help them flex some regional muscle.

"Qatar saw itself as being on the right side of history," said Sultan al Qassemi, who explained that the emirate's rulers had believed the Brothers to be enjoying a regional renaissance. "But maybe the decision was on the wrong side of their interests."

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