I try in my journey as a journalist not to obsessively take on the role of an agent of democratic change usually embraced by many members of our prestigious fourth estate. But, I still live to challenge governments in their shortcomings through my craft. It’s a cause not worth dying for, but in time it becomes a way of life, even behind bars.
The Arab world is moving at a turtle-like pace toward progress in the area of media reform. I have had the privilege of working for Western and Arab networks in the Arabian Gulf and Africa for over fifteen years now. I still always hear that voice in my head recurring three or four times before filing every story. “What will the government’s reaction be? Which official will target me after seeing this report?”
Anyone with an ounce of sense who has followed our plight for the past year knows that we three Al Jazeera English journalists are innocent. For the sake of history’s record, we are not just convicted of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, as most networks reported. We have also been framed as members of the Muslim Brotherhood—as terrorist reporters who have fabricated news using unlicensed equipment to portray the nation in a state of civil war!
Yes, I know you are cringing as you hear these words just as I am writing them.
The audacity of our case highlights the degree to which journalism and politics overlap in the realm of Arab media. We are victims of a real ongoing cold war between Egypt and Qatar, the oil-rich Gulf state that gave birth to the al-Jazeera network back in 1996. This cold war is understandably under-reported in the West and remains overshadowed by the global “war on terror.”
I was not allowed reading material for months into my detention. I remember giving the guards packs of cigarettes daily in exchange for a quick glance at the local newspaper. It did not take much reading to recognize the intensified, unprecedented character-assassination campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which had only been declared a terrorist organization four days before our arrest back in December, 2013. The witch hunt included anyone who associated with them, protested for their cause, or even reported their line of opposition. The Egyptian authors of the articles were the all-too-familiar journalists who had become civil servants to the state…
Literally overnight, this political debacle became the core of my suffering. The tragic irony lies in the fact that I had protested among millions of Egyptians, as a private citizen, against the Muslim Brotherhood months before my arrest.
Egypt decided to teach Qatar a lesson for continuing to support the Muslim Brotherhood as Doha welcomed many wanted Islamist fugitives pursued by Egypt. Qatar had also withdrawn their much-needed $10-billion in bonds from Egyptian banks after Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was ousted five months before our arrest. In retaliation, Egypt decided to punish Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed in their score-settling with this ambitious nation, Qatar. The verdict killed two birds with one stone as it sent a chilling message to all reporters in Egypt who were not toeing the government’s line.
Al-Jazeera offices in the past years had been shut down in Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and now in Egypt, amongst other nations which don’t really appreciate the channel’s highly promoted motto “The Opinion and the Other Opinion.” Kings and rulers of these autocratic nations argued that Al Jazeera thrives on urging their citizens to revolt against them in the name of democracy. They have defended their stance, pointing out that the channel almost never covers the internal mutterings of the terrified opposition in Qatar, where political parties, trade unions and demonstrations are banned. Therefore, many countries have opted to challenge Qatar’s media machine, calling it a tool for its foggy foreign policy, insisting the channel does not live up to the “Other Opinion.”
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I ask you to try and imagine how we three journalists felt in the cage when the al-Jazeera network lawyer abruptly quit in court in front of dozens of reporters as he yelled to the judge: “Al Jazeera has raised a $150-million international lawsuit against Egypt and against my request. Qatar is trading with the names of my clients and endangering their position in this case!”
Indeed, as millions of people and all of you in this room thankfully rallied, protested, and advocated for our release, on the other side of the globe we were left with a legal counsel that handed us to the gallows! I recently found out that most of the staff in the al-Jazeera newsroom back in Qatar were vocally appalled at the timing of this retaliatory $150-million lawsuit. There is a book to be written about the bigotry between Egypt and Qatar that left us expendable behind bars…
Almost a year into my detention, I am now more furious than ever that I am caught up in a web of coalitions and governments in the Middle East who can’t seem to agree on who the terrorists are, which camp to bomb first and which militant group to arm next. And, if we were to invite all Arab rulers to a round-table they would hardly agree on anything except for their sworn hatred against their one enemy, the press!
I felt a real sense of sadness when we were finally allowed daily newspapers and access to a radio. I could not digest the number of journalists detained and killed in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Myanmar and Iran, and those arrested as they covered the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in the United States, the so-called land of the free. Throughout my career, I don’t remember the world’s press witnessing worse periods in its life…
I accepted the position of al-Jazeera Egypt Bureau Chief three months before our arrest knowing I was going against the tide…I sailed into the storm with a sincere crew as we beat ferocious political waves. Unfortunately, several months later it became evident that I had inherited a sinking ship. I fired many warning flares and SOS messages as captain of this doomed ship but we kept bobbing in the ocean with no compass or a watchtower back at headquarters in Qatar to look out for our safe path…
As the world’s turmoil increases so does the tug-of-war between governments and the press. I strongly hope that 2015 inspires governments to review regulations in a transparent manner to better protect journalists from prosecution not only in the epicentre of global turmoil in the Middle East but in the Western hemisphere…I promise to join your advocacy as a free man by continuing to bang the #FreePressBattle beat way after my release.