What happened with the three al-Jazeera reporters in Egypt goes far beyond a simple display of arrogance and bullying attributed to oppression; it is a huge blow to journalism.
Indeed, June 23 will go down in history as a black day, marking a step toward the criminalization of professional conduct.
“There could be no clearer evidence that Egyptian society is still in a state of civil war than the verdicts which Egyptian judges have been handing down in recent cases, culminating in the appalling miscarriage of justice represented by the sentencing of three al-Jazeera journalists to jail yesterday,” wrote the Guardian in an editorial. ‘The journalists were accused of falsely suggesting that Egypt is a deeply divided nation, yet these perverted verdicts prove just that.
“No matter that the journalists concerned were, according to their professional colleagues, simply reporting what was going on in a professional manner. No matter that there is an important distinction between al-Jazeera’s English service, which aspires to almost BBC-like standards of objectivity, and its Arabic services, which are more biased and critical but still can hardly be accused of attempting to undermine the Egyptian state.
“It may be that President [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi did not personally signal that he wanted such unfair and harsh verdicts. But he has helped create a them-and-us divide in Egyptian society that has infected the judiciary and produced these travesties of justice.”
As Jodie Ginsburg, chief executive of the Index on Censorship, said, the verdict “tells journalists that simply doing their job is considered a criminal activity in Egypt.”
Prison sentences in Cairo are just the new signs of the times in a geography in which the control over information and the curbing of dissent take larger proportions of the power game. Like Sisi, many leaders in the neighborhood are keen on vilifying journalism, attempting to equate its domain as one with clandestine activities that overthrow regimes. While in Syria and Iraq it is more about physical safety, in other places it is about facing trials for publishing news, running the risk of being targeted as public enemies. It has become particularly dangerous for international media to cover developments as it resembles what happens in domestic media in many countries in the neighborhood.
Hasnain Kazım, Der Spiegel’s Turkey correspondent, is an example. His report from Soma, struck by a mine tragedy, was published under the headline — a quote from a relative of a miner – “Go to hell, Erdoğan,” and he faced a huge hate campaign from Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters. He said he had received more than 10,000 messages, including death threats against him and his family and profane insults, before Der Speigel withdrew him from Turkey out of concern for his safety.
“I received many death threats while working in Pakistan. But over four years I had come to know many people from the Taliban and learned how to deal with the threats. Even the threats there were not as intense and heavy as the ones here,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News on Monday.
Turkey’s political environment sends signals to journalists — local and international — that require attention and concern.
One aspect has to do with the release of the Sledgehammer trial convicts. Soon after the top court ruled that due to a violation of rights, there must be a retrial, hysteria broke out, as some columnists started demanding that some of their colleagues at the Taraf daily, which had broken the story with a series of articles, be put on trial. According to them — some pro-government and others militarists in disguise — the case had collapsed entirely, and journalists were responsible for the harm done.
This tells how “ready” some in the Turkish media are to smear each other and “help” the authorities criminalize the very profession they are in. When the Radikal daily stopped publishing its hard copy some days ago, there were also those who applauded the decision, adding joyfully that there will be more to come in terms of closures.
There are also worrisome claims in the media that legal inquiries are under way into more than one media group, as more columnists have been fired.