Al-Jazeera took out a full-page ad on the back of the main section of The New York Times on Sunday – coveted and pricey real estate.
The ad didn’t say much. But for a few words, the page was blank, making it appear an awfully expensive waste of space for the Qatar-based satellite news channel.
It wasn’t, though, as the few lines of text near the bottom made clear. The lack of stories, facts, photos and the usual content of a news publication was the message itself: “This is what happens when you silence journalists.”
The ad was in support of three Al-Jazeera English journalists who, despite any actual evidence, were convicted in an Egyptian court Monday of conspiring to file false reports on behalf of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. All three received sentences of seven years in prison; one of the three had an extra three years tacked on for having the misfortune to pocket a spent bullet shell as a souvenir from the civil strife he’d been covering.
The convictions of the three well-respected journalists – Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, all of whom had previously worked for foreign news outlets such as The New York Times, CNN and the BBC – is an outrageous assault on the independent news media and, by extension, the people who depend on the media to keep them informed about what’s going on in their own countries. Political prosecution of the media is a big clue that human rights are not at the top of a government’s agenda.
It was more than a little ironic that the sentencing came the day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo and noted his impression that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was committed to re-evaluating human rights legislation. Embarrassing, too. Though Kerry decried the convictions as “draconian” and the White House condemned them Monday, the kangaroo court trial of the three journalists had been going on for days before Kerry’s meeting.
American journalists often take for granted the ease with which we can do our jobs, thanks to the strong protections for free speech, open-records laws and a history of the judicial branch supporting the rights of a free press. And while there are regular attempts to curtail access to government information, we don’t have to worry about being jailed for covering stories or criticizing our nation’s leaders.
At least, not yet. But it’s ever a possibility, one that keeps us vigilant as an industry and ready to pounce upon any transgression, whether it be the failure of local police to turn over basic information about an officer-involved shooting or keeping secret how many oil trains are passing through the middle of Sacramento and other cities.
To that end, we stand in support of the three Al-Jazeera journalists and call upon the global community to pressure President el-Sissi for a pardon.