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.

Tony Blair gives backing to Egyptian military coup, criticises Brotherhood and calls for international community to support leadership
Robert Fisk: If only Blair could grasp the truth about Field Marshal Sisi
 

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore