Shocking as was the sight of Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed locked in a cage while they were sentenced to long jail terms, broadcast pictures rendered the scene remote. Meeting with the three journalists’ colleagues, and considering – arguing at times – about what we in the UK can do to secure their release , provided a direct and visceral connection with those now languishing in Egypt’s cells.
The NUJ called the meeting a week after sentencing, to bring together campaigners for the journalists’ release, and to raise awareness of the other eleven reporters currently behind bars in Egypt. Around fifty activists and journalists , including London-based Egyptians, foreign correspondents and two broadcast units, crowded into the union’s top-floor meeting room on Monday night (30 June).
“A journalists’ boycott of Egypt is not tenable – there are too many important stories happening there, but tourists avoiding the pyramids, Sham el Sheikh and the Nile would hit Egypt’s rulers where is hurts,” said Lindsey Hilsum, Chanel Four News international editor. There was not a shred of credible evidence against the journalists, she said: “We must not forget about our jailed colleagues”.
Mick Hodgkin, the NUJ Father of Chapel at Al Jazeera in the UK talked about his colleagues’ track record as reporters – Greste with the BBC, Fahmy at the New York Times and CNN and Mohamed a young journalist who “always knew the right questions to ask but never gave away his own political views, such was his commitment to impartiality”.
Jeremy Corbyn MP, from the NUJ’s Parliamentary group, said that he had been the first to tell foreign secretary William Hague about the sentences. “Al Jazeera’s coverage of Tahrir Square was fantastic. That is what President Sisi does not want”, he said. “Sisi knows that you don’t have to lock up every reporter up to start the process of journalists self-censoring”.
International Federation of Journalists president, Jim Boumelha set the imprisonments in the context of the polarisation of Egyptian society. “The most important thing in Egypt is to build bridges to encourage journalists to come together”, he said. Boumelha explained that the jailing of journalists was a frequent occurrence under the Mubarak and the Morsi regimes. He also called on Al Jazeera to recognise unions in all its operations, not just those in the UK.
Opened to the audience, proceedings became rather more voluble. One audience member accused another of being a wanted murderer and a terrorist. Another suggested that there would be spies in our midst who would report back to the Egyptian embassy. Jack Shenker, who was The Guardian’s Cairo correspondent until recently said: “International solidarity will really make a difference to our colleagues who are now in jail. Egypt is an outward-facing country, its leadership will take notice of international condemnation”.
Shenker was one of several speakers who expressed their belief that with sufficient campaigning the Sisi regime would relent and free Geste, Fahmy and Mohamed. Witnessing the raw pain their detention is causing their colleagues, not to mention the prisoners own privations, it is clear that the need for the pressure to be applied could not be greater.