Protect a free press -- in Egypt and everywhere

June 24, 2014 

Al-Jazeera took out a full-page advertisement on the back of the main section of The New York Times on Sunday. The ad didn't say much. But for a few words, the page was blank, making it appear a waste of space for the Qatar-based satellite news channel.

It wasn't, though, as the few lines of text near the bottom made clear. The lack of stories, facts, photos and the usual content of a news publication was the message itself: "This is what happens when you silence journalists."

The ad was in support of three Al-Jazeera English journalists who, despite a lack of evidence, were convicted in an Egyptian court Monday of conspiring to file false reports on behalf of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. All three received sentences of seven years in prison; one of them had three years tacked on for pocketing a spent bullet shell as a souvenir from the strife he'd covered.

The convictions of the respected journalists — Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, all of whom had previously worked for outlets such as The Times, CNN and the BBC — is an outrageous assault on the independent news media and, by extension, the people who depend on the media to keep them informed about what's going on in their countries. Political prosecution of the media is a big clue that human rights are not at the top of a government's agenda.

The sentencing came the day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo and noted his impression that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was committed to re-evaluating human rights legislation. Though Kerry decried the convictions as "draconian" and the White House condemned them Monday, the kangaroo court trial of the journalists had been going on before Kerry's meeting. He should be embarrassed by his positive appraisal of el-Sissi.

American journalists often take for granted the ease with which we can do our jobs, thanks to the strong protections for free speech, open-records laws and a history of the judicial branch supporting the rights of a free press. And while there are regular attempts to curtail access to government information, we don't have to worry about being jailed for covering stories or criticizing our nation's leaders.

At least, not yet. But it's a possibility, one that keeps us vigilant and ready to pounce upon any transgression involving the public's right to know what its government is doing.

To that end, we stand in support of the three Al-Jazeera journalists and call upon the global community to pressure President el-Sissi for pardons.


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