Heba Elkholy/AP

Meeting at UN highlights plight of imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists

Freedom of the press an ‘inherent right,’ United Nations Correspondents Association president says

An emergency meeting was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Wednesday to address the plight of three Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned by Egypt under “draconian” sentences handed down earlier this week.

Three empty chairs sat at the front of the “FreeAJStaff” meeting as a symbolic gesture. The names of each of the jailed journalists were placed on the seats.

The United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) hosted the event in an effort to underscore the journalists’ plight and discuss ways to secure their release.

“Everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and expression,” Pamela Falk, president of UNCA, said at the meeting. “Freedom of the press is not an option — it is an inherent right.”

UNCA has asked Egypt to live up to its international commitments and free all detained journalists. The right to report news is enshrined in international human rights law, and Falk said the U.N. is working to insert language in all conflict and peacekeeping resolutions to protect journalists.

From left, Pamela Falk, president of UNCA; Robert Mahoney, deputy director of CPJ; Tony Harris, presenter for Al Jazeera America; and Kate O'Brian, president of Al Jazeera America, at a UNCA conference on Wednesday at United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Al Jazeera

Members of the U.N. Security Council were represented at the meeting, which was also attended by nearly 100 members of the press, one former head of state and top executives from Al Jazeera.

On Tuesday, an Egyptian court sentenced Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy to seven years in prison, and Baher Mohamed to 10 years, on widely discredited counts of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and producing false news reports. Several other Al Jazeera journalists were tried in absentia, including Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, both of whom were given 10-year sentences.

Al Jazeera has strenuously rejected the charges and maintains the innocence of its accused journalists.

Over 200 journalists are currently imprisoned around the world, and 67 have been jailed in Egypt since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a military coup. Fourteen journalists are still imprisoned in the country.

“Press freedom in Egypt has been deteriorating rapidly,” Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said at the meeting. “Egypt is now the biggest jailer of journalists in the Arab world … that’s not a record that any country should be happy to have.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has the power to free the journalists, Mahoney said. The former army general could expedite the appeals process or issue a pardon, or Egypt’s prosecutor general could ask for a retrial — since there were “obviously flaws” in the trial, Mahoney said.

Jose Ramos Horta, former guerrilla leader and current president of East Timor, also attended the meeting and expressed confidence that the matter would be resolved, calling Al Jazeera “revolutionary” and “courageous.”

“It can be resolved creatively, diplomatically, through mediation,” Horta said. “Sometimes leaders, like President Sisi, need some way out. They have given a message … now it is time to find a solution that is satisfactory to everybody.”

Horta added that it was ironic that journalists who wrote about democratic revolution in Egypt during the Arab Spring are now in jail. He advised diplomacy rather than public pressure to resolve the situation.

Al Jazeera’s diplomatic correspondent James Bays, meanwhile, rhetorically questioned the efficacy of efforts to free the detained journalists. “If the only man we’re trying to convince is President Sisi, is this campaign just going to infuriate him?” he asked.

CNN senior U.N. correspondent Richard Roth echoed that concern at the meeting, asking, “How effective are photo ops and other gatherings?” But Mahoney of CPJ said he believed it was imperative to keep up the pressure on Sisi through international advocacy and public relations events.

“There is a place for quiet diplomacy, and maybe that time has passed,” Mahoney said. “There is a place for back channels, but we are not diplomats, we are journalists, and the only tools we have at our disposal are our channels, our papers, our blogs and our radio stations.”

Al Jazeera invited Egypt’s ambassador to the U.N. to the meeting, but he did not attend due to having a prior engagement. The country’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N., Osama Abdelkhalek, did attend. He told those gathered that Egypt fully respects its international commitments, but said he was not at liberty to comment on Tuesday’s verdict.

“I’m bound to refrain from doing so,” Abdelkhalek said. “The judiciary is totally independent.”

Bays said if he was so independent, why didn’t he criticize what was “blatantly an outrageous sentence”? He added that the evidence presented by the prosecution was “laughable.” Abdelkhalek said that only the judge could determine whether the evidence was "enough," adding that Egypt’s judicial system has three tiers and this was a decision on just the first level — which can be appealed.

The meeting Wednesday followed worldwide condemnation of the verdict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday called the sentences “chilling and draconian,” and the White House urged Sisi to pardon the three journalists.

“There’s a saying: If you don’t like what’s being said, then change the conversation, and that’s what this verdict has done,” Kate O’Brian, president of Al Jazeera America, said at the meeting.

She added that the three Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned by Egypt “did nothing but their jobs — reporting the facts and bringing it to the public, who can make up their own minds.”

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