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Trial begins for Al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt

February 20, 2014 at 6:28 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Three Al-Jazeera television journalists arrested in Egypt last December went on trial today accused of terrorism. Proceedings at Cairo’s Tora prison came amid a continued crackdown by Egypt’s military government that has ensnared reporters, as well as the political opposition.

Paul Mason of Independent Television News has our story.

PAUL MASON: Inside, three journalists from the Al-Jazeera network faced terrorism charges. Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohammed and Australian Peter Greste have been held since the 29th of December.

FARAG FATHY, Lawyer for the Defense (through interpreter): We asked that they be released pending investigations, and we also asked to question all witnesses and demanded to question the technical committee that had examined the equipment which was seized.

PAUL MASON: Outside, their supporters waited anxiously for news.

HEATHER ALLAN, Head of News Gathering, Al-Jazeera English: We believe we will be acquitted. The lawyers are fully on board with us. They fully believe in our case. They fully believe that we were just operating as journalists. We don’t have an agenda. We have got nothing against Egypt. We certainly don’t lie or do biased reporting.

PAUL MASON: What they’re accused of is more than that. This police footage complete with doomy soundtrack was played on a pro-government TV channel which labeled them a terrorist cell.

The charges they face today include manipulating footage to give a false image that Egypt is in the middle of a civil war and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated a terrorist group.

NICHOLAS PIACHAUD, Amnesty International: Today’s trial sends a very clear message, I think: Egypt doesn’t tolerate dissent. That is a message at international media, but also national media in Egypt. These men face very serious criminal charges. But I think the real reason they are in jail right now is because they dared to question the narrative of the authorities. And that is really what this trial is about.

PAUL MASON: In December, these three secular youth leaders, instrumental in the original revolution of 2011, were given three years hard labor. The crackdown on the Brotherhood has come alongside repression of bloggers, secularists and democratic opposition parties.

NICHOLAS PIACHAUD: What we have right now is a widening circle of oppression, one that doesn’t just target supporters of Mohammed Morsi and news outlets like Al-Jazeera, but also bloggers like Alaa Abdul Fattah, people who were very opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood when they were in power.

PAUL MASON: The hearing was postponed until the 5th of March. The men remain behind these notorious walls.