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Al-Jazeera journalists charged with trying to distort Egyptian media

January 30, 2014 at 6:42 PM EDT
Egyptian authorities charged 20 journalists working for Al-Jazeera with being agents of the Muslim Brotherhood and plotting to distort Egypt’s media. Judy Woodruff talks to Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers about their detainment and why Al-Jazeera is being targeted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to Egypt and a crackdown on the news media.

On Wednesday, authorities charged 20 journalists working for the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel with being agents of the Muslim Brotherhood. They were also accused of plotting to defame the country and running a terrorist cell out of an upscale Cairo hotel.

Of the group, five hold foreign citizenship, including acting bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and English-language correspondent Peter Greste.

To tell us more, I’m joined by Nancy Youssef. She’s Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, back here in the United States for a few weeks?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Yes, thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy, thank you.

What is the Egyptian government saying that these journalists did?

NANCY YOUSSEF: They’re alleging that they were working out of the Marriott Hotel, and that rather than there to report objectively about what was happening in Egypt, they were purposefully trying to distort Egypt’s media — or Egypt’s new by only presenting the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of things, the Muslim Brotherhood being the party through which ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi rose to power.

And so the Egyptians are saying we’re — members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the non-Egyptians had come into Cairo with the purpose of training them on how to distort the news in such a way that was favorable to their opponents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what’s the evidence? Because I know government is saying that they edited and manipulated video footage.

NANCY YOUSSEF: That’s right.

In the statement that they released yesterday, they didn’t offer too much detail, other than to say they that they had brought in experts who said that their equipment showed that they were distorting video that they were obtaining, that they were manipulating the video in such a way that was designed to be unfavorable to the Egyptian government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is Al-Jazeera saying in its defense?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, Al-Jazeera said a couple things, of course, number one, that these guys were not members of the Muslim Brotherhood and that they were not set in there to do anything but to be journalists, which is what they are. They’re professional journalists.

And they’re also saying, in the case of some of these charged, remember, there are 20, they haven’t been formally handed papers charging them, that they have actually heard the charges through this statement, but not through the prosecutor’s office directly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a sense in — from any quarter other than the government that Al-Jazeera has taken sides?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, there is a feeling amongst Egyptians that Al-Jazeera is favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is a Qatari-funded news channel and that that country supported the Morsi presidency, certainly more so than other nations did. And, so, on the streets, there’s certainly that feeling. It’s perpetuated because, on state news media, there’s constant suggestions that Al-Jazeera’s plotting against the state, that they’re working against the interests of Egypt and that they are agents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the government has been going around saying that?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Yes, on state media, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you visited one of the Al-Jazeera journalists in his jail cell, what, earlier this month. Tell us about that.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, Mohamed Fahmy, who is the acting bureau chief, I wanted to see the conditions that he was being held in.

And so we had to sneak in, because he’s being held at Tora prison, which is a maximum security prison in Cairo. It’s where Mubarak was held, the former president, during his detention. And so to see him, we had to the go to the prosecutor’s office and see him in a holding cell, where he was waiting to be questioned by the prosecutor’s office.

And the only way we were able to do it is to go as Egyptians there to bring him things like food and clothing, which families must provide detainees. And so had we not been women, had we not been Egyptian, we wouldn’t have been able to get in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what was he saying then?

NANCY YOUSSEF: When we saw him…

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you we saw him.

NANCY YOUSSEF: … he was initially very confused and almost suspicious about why we were being allowed, let in.

And once he realized that he had a platform, he just tried to think of everything that he wanted to tell everybody, that he was being held in a dark room, that he was being forced to sleep on the floor, that he was being held among the worst detainees, including jihadists that have been arrested in this government crackdown, and that the government was building a big case against him and telling him things that he was a big catch and that he would never see the light again.

And so he was trying to get out as much as he could, and at the same time reassure everyone that he was OK at that time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then, of course, since then, now we know the charges have been officially filed.

Is it that only Al-Jazeera is being singled out by the government?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, Al-Jazeera is really disliked by many, many Egyptians. Remember that Al-Jazeera was key in 2011 to people’s understanding of what was happening, where state media was saying that the protests were not so big.

Al-Jazeera was the main source for a lot of Egyptians about what was happening in places like Tahrir Square. And since then, they have had a growing influence on the country. And so all of that has made them really disliked by the Egyptian public.

That said, we’re increasingly seeing crackdowns on journalists writ large. Just today, the state information service had to put out a directive about whether interviewing a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or giving their point of view constituted a threat on the state.

And we saw today a number of Muslim Brotherhood members arrested for putting out tweets and Facebook messages that were seen as inciting violence. And, so, while Al-Jazeera has been targeted, it seems that the net is being cast wider and wider.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The crackdown seems to be wider.

One other thing I want to ask you about, Nancy Youssef, because you have spent so much time reporting on Egypt, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the military leader, he’s now calling him field marshal, al-Sisi, is going to run for president. What’s the reaction there to that?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Largely positive, because he’s really seen as the savior of Egypt.

He was the one on July 3 who announced Morsi’s ouster. The fact that he was promoted to field marshal just a few days ago suggests, I think, that the military in a way endorses his potential presidency. And that he is the only person with the background and the capability to save Egypt and put it back on the right track, and so it’s widely celebrated.

You should know that, in Egypt now, his picture is everywhere. It’s on apartment buildings and businesses. It’s on candies and T-shirts. And on the third anniversary of the uprising, in Tahrir, you couldn’t walk a few feet without seeing pictures, posters, cutouts of his face.

He has been heralded as the single greatest possible person to come in and salvage, not only Egypt, but for some, the hopes of the revolution. And so many people celebrated. But, quietly, I think, people are saying that this threatens the revolution and that this really marks a regression from what people had hoped would come three years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, if there were elections, when would they be?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, under the constitution that was ratified on July 15, elections have to happen within 90 days of that, and so assuming they stick to that, we hope to know something by April.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy Youssef with McClatchy Newspapers in the United States on a rare visit, we thank you. And thank you for your reporting.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Thank you so much.