When an Egyptian court convicted Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed this week on trumped up charges and with no evidence against them worth the name, the internet, quite rightly, exploded. Twitter, in particular, quickly became a hotbed of outrage, with journalists all over the world expressing their solidarity with a series of hashtags -- "#FreeAJStaff", "#journalismisnotacrime" -- visual memes and online petitions. Courtney Radsch (@courtneyr
), advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom
), put the verdict, the online reaction to it and its consequences for foreign and local reporters into context.
"These convictions are highly politicised and are wrapped up in the geopolitics of the region," Radsch told Crikey
, "specifically the conflict between Egypt and Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, over support for the Muslim Brotherhood. CPJ is seriously concerned about the chilling effect that such a politicised ruling has for the press in Egypt as the country undergoes a critical transitional period.
"Whether or not the imprisonments change the calculus of Western powers in their relationship with Egypt, a regional power, remains to be seen. But CPJ is certainly working to ensure that this issue is firmly ensconced on the US and other Western countries’ agendas."
Radsch said that the online response to the verdict could play an important role on this front, especially if it remains as virulent in the coming weeks as it has been over the past few days.
"Symbolic gestures like tweeting pictures of journalists with their mouths taped shut or using the hashtag #journalismisnotacrime are important awareness-raising tools," Radsch said. "They help to underscore -- to Egyptian officials as well as to policymakers at home -- the fact that the world is watching.
"We need to keep the pressure on our elected officials, whether in Australia, the US, Canada or the UK, to ensure that they raise the issue of the journalists' imprisonment in their conversations with Egyptian officials and advocate for their release. They need to factor this into all aspects of their relationship with the country. Egypt should not be permitted to normalise its international relationships as long as it imprisons journalists."
While the conviction of the Al Jazeera journalists has galvanised the international media community, Egypt is by no means the only country CPJ is currently concerned about. From Iran to Ethiopia, Turkey to China, journalists are languishing in prison, being murdered with impunity and in general being targeted for simply trying to do their jobs.