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Al-Jazeera Journalists Imprisoned in Egypt: How did it come to this?

Updated on June 25, 2014

Al-Jazeera Journalists in the Defendant's Cage

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Al-Jazeera Journalists Imprisoned

Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed have been sentenced for prison time for aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist organization by the current Egyptian government. They face years in prison, and without a presidential pardon, they will not be able to appeal the ruling until August. Al-Sisi has been clear that he will not “interfere” with the judicial proceedings.

Since Mohamed Morsi was ousted by a military coup a year ago, the government has been cracking down on the brotherhood. The current government has designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Recently, al-Sisi was elected with over 90% of the vote, and he has used his new mandate to really attack the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Thousands have been put in jail, and hundreds have been sentenced to death.

It is no secret that al-Jazeera has had sympathetic coverage for the Muslim Brotherhood during Morsi’s rule and after his exit. It is also no secret that the patron of al-Jazeera, the Emirate of Qatar, has been a generous supporter of the organization, and they have allowed several exiled Muslim Brotherhood members a place of refuge since the coup.

At this point, there is enough evidence to accuse al-Jazeera of taking sides in this political dispute. So are these journalists victims of the geopolitical maneuvers of Qatar or were they reporting biased information to support their own political agenda?

Egyptian Protesters

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Image of Bouazizi used at a Protest

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The Arab Spring and al-Jazeera

The Arab Spring surprised the world because of just how quickly the protests spread across the region, and it eventually brought down the governments in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Before the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, it began in Tunisia, and more specifically, it began when Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire. Bouazizi self-immolation and suicide was the spark that kicked off the region-wide unrest.

It is important to note that Bouazizi was the ninth person to commit suicide that way in Tunisia in only six months. It is clear that the regime of Ben Ali was on thin ice, and there was plenty of discontent among the Tunisian people. The reason why Bouazizi’s tragic death was much more visible and formed a much stronger following compared to those before him was that al-Jazeera took the lead on the coverage.

At that time, al-Jazeera’s journalists were banned from Tunisia because of their criticism of Ben Ali’s government, but they had some inside sources—“citizen journalists”—who supplied them with information. Bouazizi’s death was recorded on cellphones by several people, and al-Jazeera had the footage within only a few hours of his death. Only several hours later, they set up an interview with Bouazizi’s cousin in which he explained why his cousin chose to end his life. Bouazizi’s cousin said that Mohamed was a university graduate who, due to a lack of employment, had to sell fruit, but because of the oppressive bureaucracy was not even able to run his fruit cart. On top of that, he was apparently seriously insulted by a police women on the day of his suicide.

These key pieces of information helped put together the overall narrative that Tunisia, under Ben Ali, was a corrupt regime and the government was so bad that the educated youth could not even find basic employment. Furthermore, Bouazizi was slapped by a woman. Say no more...

Bouazizi’s sacrifice inspired the nation to protest against Ben Ali, and the protests quickly spread across the Middle East, and al-Jazeera was present in every country fueling the flames of revolution. The problem is that the narrative told by Bouazizi’s cousin was not entirely true. There are heavy doubts that he was slapped by the police women, and he was not a college graduate. All of those details were fabricated, but once they were mentioned on the air thanks to al-Jazeera, they took on a life of their own.

This is not to say that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was a conspiracy hatched in Doha to destabilize Tunisia, but the network executives at al-Jazeera saw an opportunity to be on the right side of history and they took it. They were already engaging in overt criticism of the Arab leaders, but now they assumed the role of the facilitator of Arab democracy. It would be a stretch to say that al-Jazeera was a determining factor during the Arab Spring, but without their support the protests may not have been as powerful as they proved to be.

At that time Wadah Khanfar was the director of al-Jazeera, and he has been an outspoken advocate for Arab democracy. He is certainly an idealist who saw al-Jazeera as having the potential to do real good in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, there were some discrepancies in their coverage that indicate that the Qatari government did maintain a controlling stake in the network. For example, the uprisings in Bahrain were largely ignored. This is probably because the royal family of Bahrain and the al-Thanis in Qatar have a good relationship. There is also evidence that al-Jazeera adjusted its coverage of Saudi Arabia based on the relationship between the Saudi and Qatari governments.

As the Arab Spring “cooled down”—relatively—the Qatari government decided to replace Khanfar, perhaps because he was a bit too idealistic for their taste. They replaced him with a member of the al-Thani royal family.

News Report about Bouazizi

The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Jazeera

The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that is present around the Middle East, but following the Arab Spring and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people elected a Muslim Brotherhood government for the first time in their history. They are a controversial organization that offers its own form of political Islam. Qatar has been an outspoken supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, much to the chagrin of the Saudis.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia both practice a similar kind of conservative Wahhabi Islam, but Qatar is a bit less socially conservative compared to the Saudis. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood seems to represent similar values to the culture of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family made a decision long ago to hinder the brotherhood as much as possible. It is possible that they feel politically threatened by the organizations, so much so that they are more comfortable with the military-backed secular regimes.

Qatar on the other hand has been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is not entirely clear why. It seems like they are playing a geopolitical chess game with Saudis in an effort to increase their influence in the region. However, with the collapse of the Morsi government Qatar set itself up for disaster in Egypt.

Their continued support for the brotherhood has cost al-Jazeera dearly in Egypt. Their offices were shut down last year, and up until these recent arrests, they were forced to work out of a Marriot hotel. They have been affectionately referred by state-controlled Egyptian media as the “Marriot Cell”, obviously implying that they are terrorists.

Al-Sisi

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Egypt and al-Jazeera: Looking Ahead

Currently, it seems that the Egyptian government has given up on the ideals that were so passionately fought for during the Arab Spring. Al-Sisi looks a lot like Mubarak, and the government has shown little remorse for intimidating the press to fit with their narrative. After years of unrest and revolution, it appears that the Egyptian people are understandably weary of fighting.

However, al-Jazeera as a network is not completely innocent. They knew what kind of man al-Sisi was, and they should have anticipated this reaction. The tragic thing is that the journalists that were arrested and now charged were chosen completely at random. One of them had only just arrived in Egypt less than two weeks before, and another had marched in a rally against Morsi’s government. Individually, they were certainly not collaborating with brotherhood.

At the end of the day al-Jazeera is a legitimate news network, and it serves an important purpose in the Middle East. One can argue that it is merely a soft-power initiative of the Qataris, but there is news organization that is completely independent. Even the esteemed New York Times cooperated with the George W Bush administration in spreading propaganda about WMDs in Iraq. In al-Jazeera’s case, they benefited greatly from the Arab Spring, but if they cannot shake off the image that their Qatari patron is calling the shots, they will certainly lose even more credibility across the Middle East.

Long Discussion with Wadah Khanfar

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    • Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image

      Jo_Goldsmith11 3 years ago

      A really awesome write up here. The photos are extraordinary! I think we need to see what we can do to get these journalists back to their prospective homes. I was so riveted to the news coverage about this.

      shared, up and thank you for doing a great job with explaining about this important subject.

    • Fred Arnold profile image

      Fred Arnold 3 years ago from Clearwater, FL

      Thank you for this in depth Hub! I saw this on my Twitter feed the other day but the article did not offer much in the terms of detail. I was really confused at why they would consider a couple journalists terrorists. It does make sense for a government to look at this kind of reporting as negative. al-Jazeera has never been in it for the neutral side of journalism and it's no surprise they did not relent in the Middle East.

      As a current Journalist major , you have to give these journalists some props. They put their neck out their for the flow of information, and that is exactly what the trade involves sometimes.

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