The sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to lengthy prison terms is the latest crackdown on press freedoms in Egypt since last year's military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was democratically elected one year earlier.
Egypt ranks as the third most dangerous place in the world for journalists, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists published in December.
In the second half of 2013, five journalists were killed, and more than 80 were “arbitrarily detained,” according to Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Egypt as worse than 158 other countries in regard to freedom of the press. Arrests and torture of journalists have become common in Egypt, the organization says.
The three Al Jazeera journalists — Peter Greste, an Australian; Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian; and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian — were each given seven years on Monday for allegedly aiding a "terrorist organization," a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed was given an extra three years for possession of a spent bullet he said he had picked up off the ground. Eleven other defendants, tried in absentia, were given 10-year sentences.
The sentencing raised concern internationally with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International, and media agencies like The New York Times and the BBC, registering their displeasure with the verdict. On Monday, the social media campaign #FreeAJstaff began trending on Twitter with more than 50,000 tweets published in protest of the verdict.
Despite the global outrage, local Egyptian media expressed little sympathy for the fate of the journalists. One Egyptian broadcast journalist, Ibrahim Eissa, who — like the Al Jazeera journalists — was once sentenced to prison for the charge of publishing false news, said the "defendants in the case are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and that Egypt is a victim of an international media conspiracy," Mada Masr reported.
One week before the sentencing, another Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, was released on medical grounds, ending almost a year of imprisonment without charge. Elshamy was freed only after he had been on hunger strike for 147 days in protest of his prolonged and unjustified detainment.
Egypt’s strangle on the press goes beyond the Al Jazeera network. On Monday, a court in Upper Egypt sentenced journalist Bishoy Armia to five years in prison for “for inciting sectarian strife” and “depicting Christians as suffering from sectarian oppression."
In January, Jeremy Hodge, an American journalist and Arabic-language translator, along with his roommate, Hossam Meneai, a local filmmaker, were arrested on the suspicion that they were members of a foreign spy ring. Both men were eventually released from prison, but not before Meneai was repeatedly beaten while being accused of working with a Sinai-based armed group.