in late December, three Al Jazeera journalists were dumped in an Egyptian prison. Accused of terrorism, there they joined dozens of other victims of the Egyptian military regime’s crackdown on free speech. Publicising their plight, on its own, won’t be enough to save them – but it might just make Egypt think twice before arresting the next journalist. By SIMON ALLISON.One of the most ambiguous, dangerous words in the lexicon of the modern world is ‘terrorist’. Who is a terrorist? What is a terrorist? There is no universal definition for the word, which is convenient for those who would abuse it. Terrorists are who and what you want them to be – just ask George W. Bush, who was never afraid to conflate terrorists with enemies or even just opponents, setting an example which other governments, with even less moral standing, have followed.Peter Greste is a terrorist. So is Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed.This, at least, is the conclusion of Egypt’s military-led government, which is the latest to embrace the term. The trio were arrested on December 29. Their crime, in Greste’s own words:“The three of us have been accused of collaborating with a terrorist organisation [the Muslim Brotherhood], of hosting Muslim Brotherhood meetings in our hotel rooms, of using unlicensed equipment to deliberately broadcast false information to further their aims and defame and discredit the Egyptian state.”

Those of us who are not representatives of an authoritarian state would recognise Greste and his colleagues as something rather different. They are journalists, now in prison for doing their jobs.

egypt journalist 1A collage of protesters calling for Al Jazeera staff to be freed (image by Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa)

Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed all work for the Qatar-based satellite TV station Al-Jazeera. They were in Cairo reporting on Egypt’s ongoing political upheaval. This is always a tough gig, but became even tougher following the declaration from the government that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “terrorist organisation”.

It is impossible to report fairly on Egypt without reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is still the largest and probably most influential single political grouping in the country.

“What then for a journalist striving for “balance, fairness and accuracy?” How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved? I worried about this at the time with Mohamed Fahmy, but we decided that the choice was obvious – as obvious as the price we are now paying for making it,” wrote Greste in an open letter from his cell in Tora prison.

Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed join dozens of other journalists who have been arrested in Egypt over the past seven months, since the military took control. The new regime has not been kind to the media. “Since July 2013, at least five journalists have been killed, 45 journalists assaulted, and 11 news outlets raided. Since that time, at least 44 journalists have also been detained without charge in pretrial procedures, which, at times, have gone on for months,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists, in an appeal to Egyptian President Adly Mahmoud Mansour. This appeal has been ignored.

free AljstafProtestors are seen in action in Nairobi, 4 February 2014 (photo by Robyn Kriel)

Fortunately, not everyone is ignoring the plight of journalists in Egypt. On Tuesday and Wednesday, you might have noticed that your Twitter feed was awash in ‘selfies’ of men and women, tape over their mouths, holding up signs that said #FreeAJstaff (if you didn’t notice it on your feed, then you’re probably following the wrong people).

This was a social media campaign organised by journalists in Nairobi, where Greste – an Australian national and award-winning foreign correspondent – was based. The campaign was accompanied by a protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Nairobi.

“We want to make people think, really think and consider, what life would be like if all journalists were gagged,” explained eNCA’s East Africa correspondent Robyn Kriel, in comments to the Daily Maverick. Kriel is also the chair of the Foreign Correspondent Association of East Africa, which was instrumental in organising the protest.

“The arrest of the Al Jazeera crew, and our friend and colleague Peter Greste, could have happened to any of us. It could be me sitting in an Egyptian jail, or you Simon, or Christiane Amanpour. Peter is an incredibly humble journalist with great integrity, his team Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed have also been hailed as heroes and brilliant journalists by colleagues and former colleagues. They don’t deserve this, and we as journalists must all use our influence and skills to put pressure on the right people and have them released as quickly as possible. They are being accused of aiding terrorism. That is ludicrous. Are the Egyptian authorities really trying to tell the world that in 2014 doing a story and covering both sides (which is what we as professional journalists are mandated to do) is now terrorism? This is unacceptable and could set a dangerous precedent.”

For Kriel, this fight is personal. “Freedom of speech and the Al Jazeera crew’s plight in Egypt struck a personal chord with me. I have been in a lot of trouble with Zimbabwe’s police in the past simply for doing my job as a professional journalist. I was beaten by riot police in 2007 whilst covering a women’s protest, and they locked my mom in jail because I was doing journalism in the country during the elections in 2008. Journalists have to stick together. We are the first to give coverage and to tell the story of a beaten activist, or a political prisoner, or a hero who stands up to a dictatorial regime, but when it comes to standing up for each other I feel like we are lacking. Perhaps it is because we all feel a bit guilty giving each other coverage, like it’s a conflict of interest or something. Well, it is a conflict of interest – but it will happen more and more if we don’t stand up to it.”

As social media campaigns go, this one was an unqualified success, racking up more than 25,000 original tweets in the first 24 hours alone. Many high profile journalists got involved, including CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and the #FreeAJstaff hashtag trended worldwide. No one, however, is under any illusions that Twitter alone will save Greste and his colleagues – but that’s not the only goal.
Simon AllisonIn protest: DM reporter Simon Allison

Tristan McConnell, a Nairobi-based foreign correspondent who was at the protest on Wednesday, explains: “Peter’s a good, solid journalist. He doesn’t take sides, he works hard to find the truth and he always looks for the way to show how big stories affect ordinary people. He’s also really generous towards colleagues…I’m not under any illusion that this campaign will directly lead to Peter and his colleagues being released, but the protest and the campaign mean that is becoming impossible for people to look the other way, whether that’s high profile journalists and presenters, the White House or, hopefully, Egypt’s leaders. Much like journalism it’s about showing people something they might otherwise ignore so they can never turn around say, ‘We didn’t know this was happening’.”

The online attention has another benefit. Presumably, Egypt’s rulers are trying to protect their reputation by silencing journalists. This has backfired – their campaign against journalists has attracted huge international condemnation of Egypt, causing more damage to the government’s reputation than any Al Jazeera report. This should at least make the Egyptian government think again before arresting the next journalist.

For now though, Grest, Fahmy, Mohamed and dozens of other journalists remain in jail. And if they’re terrorists, then maybe I’m a terrorist too. DM

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.