The Students: The Untold Details of the Al-Jazeera Trial

Published on 25 December 2014 in Opinion
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The Yemen Times is republishing this piece in two parts with permission from the Atlantic Council. The first part ran Tuesday, the second part is below.

Throughout the trial, Abdelraouf, Saad, and Abdelhamid were represented by Shabaan Said, a prominent Cairo lawyer hired by the families of the three students. Said was also formerly hired by Al-Jazeera to defend the network’s cameraman Mohamed Badr Eddin, detained for more than a month, and their reporter Abdullah al-Shamy who remained in jail for close to a year.

Speaking about the audio recording presented by the prosecution against his clients, Said told EgyptSource, “When the audio track was played in court, I demanded the court refer it to technical inspection and my request was ignored. So when the judge asked my clients if the voices heard in the track were their voices I advised them to deny it, and they did.”

Said never denied the authenticity of the recording, nor was it independently verified.

The lawyer argued the three students should have never been in the Al-Jazeera trial alongside the network’s journalists, and that the legal case against them was extremely weak. He cited their arrest without a warrant, and a complete lack of evidence linking them to the Al-Jazeera English reporters, as his reasons.

“The authorities failed to differentiate between the banned Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr and the English channel, wrongfully put all the defendants together, and failed to present evidence to back its claims.”

Nonetheless, the three students, accused of providing the three Al-Jazeera journalists with footage, were each sentenced to seven years in prison. The other two students, Ahmed and Anas, were acquitted, and were never linked in the case documents to those sentenced.

Mohamed Fahmy confronted the judge, Nagy Shehata, over the false claims linking him to the students. “You have had our computers, emails and our cell phones for six months, there are no emails or phone numbers linking us to the students standing in the cage, I wish there was anything to defend myself against.”

Al-Jazeera Journalism in a Post-Morsi Egypt

One day after Morsi’s ouster, the offices of Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr were shut down, along with other Muslim Brotherhood owned or affiliated satellite channels and media offices. According to former Al-Jazeera workers, the channel became actively present at the Raba’a al-Adaweya Media Center—a newsroom set up and operated by Muslim Brotherhood officials inside the mosque and multi-story extension at the heart of the sit in.

“Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr and Arabic offices were shutdown, and they were facing security intimidation, so they relied heavily on young freelancers in the Raba’a al-Adaweya Media Center. Some of them worked officially with the network and others worked on a freelance basis,” Osama al-Sayad, a former Al-Jazeera freelance producer told EgyptSource in a Skype interview. He fled Egypt after a security raid on his residence in Cairo’s Hadayek al-Qubba neighborhood.

According to al-Sayad, this is where Alaa Adel’s connection to the students came in to the picture. “Abdelraouf and his colleagues didn’t work directly with Al-Jazeera, but dealt with Alaa Adel,” he explained. “The channel has continued to work with similar policies and tactics but they don’t offer the same quality as before due to the security’s infiltration of the media community, and its pursuing of the channel’s workers,” al-Sayad added. “There are also many people who volunteer to cover protests and other events for the channel without being paid or hired.”

According to Alaa Adel himself, however, he was not the direct conduit to Al-Jazeera. “I am a documentary filmmaker and I met the students who took part in the pro-Morsi protests and were interested in covering such activities,” Adel told EgyptSource. “So I linked them to someone who I believe was among many volunteers who wanted to serve the cause.”Adel never mentioned the name of the ‘volunteer’ he spoke of, saying only, “He is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s media committees who had access to many cameras filming in different locations and was supplying Al-Jazeera with the footage.”

“I also introduced them to the owner of the apartment [Ahmed Abdu] who is a friend living outside of Egypt and who agreed to host them temporarily,” he added. According to Adel, that was two weeks before their arrest.

Adel said he had no knowledge of the audio track played by the prosecution, and was confused to know that all three students testified against him, but his name was never listed among the defendants.

“After their arrest, I learned from three people released from custody that the state security officers were asking about me and my whereabouts. Another friend of mine was arrested and testified against me as well, so I decided to leave Egypt and came to Istanbul.”

The Brunt of Al-Jazeera’s Misconduct

Since the establishment of the Qatari network’s Egypt arm, Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr, in March 2011, the channel has shown a clear bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood organization and its political activities in Egypt. But after Morsi’s ouster and the stifling conditions the channel was facing, it started relying on activists—who are highly sympathetic and ideologically aligned with the brotherhood—more than it did on journalists.

“The Al-Jazeera three had no clue Mubashir Misr and Arabic channels were using footage produced by active members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Anti-Coup Alliance, the first time they ever met them was in court,” a source with comprehensive knowledge of the case said on condition of anonymity.

“Fahmy, as Cairo bureau chief of Al-Jazeera English, was kept in the dark that the network was paying for content produced by the biggest opposition force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood.”

And while many would consider this citizen journalism, the source insists, “This specific case is different. In a time of warring regimes and a banned channel kept under the microscope, accepting material made by Muslim Brotherhood active youth leaves the channel under scrutiny and liable to prosecution.

“It is like giving a camera to Hezbollah or Hamas to film their frontline. What do you think the footage will portray?” said the source who described the students as “Muslim Brotherhood youth who are entrenched in the organization of protests and sit-ins.”

Many are as equally critical of the Egyptian regime’s role as they are of Al-Jazeera. “I am totally against the imprisonment of any journalist in this case and other cases,” Hisham Kassem, a prominent Egyptian publisher and founder of the country’s leading independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, told EgyptSource.

“The Egyptian regime has to understand that the media sector is as important as any sector of the economic and political structure of Egypt,” added Kassem. “Such violations inflict harm not only on the country’s image and political stability but also on the overall economy.”

As for Al-Jazeera, Kassem said “I cannot understand how Al-Jazeera destroyed its reputation as the Middle East’s leading media platform to become a servant of Qatar’s foreign policy.”

Hanan Fikry, a board member of the Egyptian Press Syndicate that took part in the defense of Al-Jazeera’s jailed journalists, says, “Al-Jazeera’s behavior and the way it operates makes it impossible to defend the victims.”

“The Al-Jazeera network, which is fully capable of covering the events fairly and professionally, decided to become a part of the dispute it covers, and sided with the Muslim Brotherhood against the Egyptian regime. What Al-Jazeera is doing simply contradicts media ethics across the world and destroys its own credibility.”

Days earlier, Fahmy described Al-Jazeera’s actions in a letter he sent from his prison to Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, CJFE.” Journalism aside, to opt to abuse your media platform to challenge an already aggravated government only leaves your frontline reporters exposed and as easy prey – a bargaining chip,” said Fahmy.

“I call on CJFE through this rare communiqué to escalate their watchdog approach toward governments and media organizations alike,” said Fahmy’s letter, read on his behalf while he remains behind bars.

Republished with permission from the Atlantic Council.