Hands off our journos

2014-06-29 15:00

When the news reached our offices this week that an Egyptian court had sentenced six of our colleagues to between seven and 10 years in prison, my knees buckled and my head dropped in disgust. Then the tears flowed.

For the past seven months, journalists, human rights activists, press-freedom organisations and members of civil society have stood shoulder to shoulder to seek the release of Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste – Al Jazeera journalists accused of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and of spreading false news about Egypt. But on Monday morning, the verdict seemed to ignore the pleas – and even the lack of evidence.

Three other journalists were tried in absentia and were sentenced to 10 years.

Greste told his colleagues at Al Jazeera that his lawyers “highlighted countless procedural errors, irregularities and abuses of due process that should have had the entire case thrown out of court many times over”.

He continued: “The verdict confirms that our trial was never simply about the charges against us. It has been an attempt to use the court to intimidate and silence critical voices in the media.”

It is a sentiment the International Press Institute (IPI) agrees with.

The most disturbing thing is that the punishment dealt to the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt did not happen in isolation. Nearly every day, somewhere in the world, a journalist is sentenced to prison or death, murdered, fired or abused for doing his or her job. And the problem is getting worse.

Since 2009, the number of dead journalists each year has hit triple digits, with the highest being 133 deaths in 2012. Some 566 journalists died in the line of duty between 2009 and last year, 163 more than the previous five years combined.

And while the IPI does not keep statistics on jailed journalists, our colleagues at the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 211 jailed journalists last year. That is 211 journalists too many.

Now we move to the next chapter in the fight to free the Al Jazeera journalists, seeking a full pardon as the journalists’ lawyers prepare to appeal.

We continue to struggle to free our colleagues jailed across the world, like Reeyot Alemu, who has sat in an Ethiopian prison for more than three years now; and Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who has been jailed in Vietnam since 2008. It is a daunting but necessary struggle and a struggle that requires the support of all of us.

In what other profession are its practitioners so readily jailed, abused or murdered for the job they do? It is a trend we must not accept. Silencing a journalist is silencing the voice of the masses – unacceptable in any society focused on the betterment of the nation.

McKenzie is executive director at the IPI

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