The United States government is not concerned about the fate of three Al Jazeera correspondents who were recently sentenced to jail for their intrepid reporting on Egypt’s shaky political landscape.
Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed have been detained by the Egyptian government for more than 180 days since their arrest last December on suspicion of “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading lies considered harmful to state security.”
The allegations stem from Al Jazeera’s reporting on the political crisis in Egypt, notably the channel’s decision to give supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood political party an opportunity to present their perspective on issues in Al Jazeera stories. The Muslim Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization in Egypt since the 2013 military coup that saw the removal of the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi.
Since Morsi’s removal, press freedom has suffered in the region. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, a sharp rise in violence against journalists was reported. The Egyptian military responded by yanking four television channels off the air for news coverage it considered to be supportive of the deposed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al Jazeera quickly became the face of media oppression in Egypt. The channel was banned from reporting in the region, its Cairo offices raided by police on several occasions and a handful of its staff detained. To keep Al Jazeera from reporting in the region, others who had been credentialed — including the Associated Press Television Network — were ordered by the government not to cooperate with Al Jazeera on stories originating from Egypt.
Despite the oppression, Al Jazeera continued to find ways to report from within the country.
“There are big events taking place in Egypt and the world tunes in to Al Jazeera at times like these,” Mostefa Souag, Al Jazeera’s acting director general, said last July. “The viewing public will not accept being cut off from news and information. Regardless of political views the Egyptian people expect media freedoms to be respected and upheld.”
The most-shocking act of media oppression came last December when Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were arrested at their Cairo hotel on terrorism charges. On Monday, Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison — Mohamed sentenced to 10 — following a five-month trial that Amnesty International described as a “sham.”
“Consigning these men to years in prison after such a farcical spectacle is a travesty of justice,” Amnesty International’s Phillip Luther said in a statement. “The only reason these three men are in jail is because the Egyptian authorities don’t like what they have to say…in Egypt today anyone who dares to challenge the state’s narrative is considered a legitimate target.”
The verdict triggered a wave of condemnation from international news organizations, including the BBC, Greste’s former employer. One day after the verdict was read, the BBC and Al Jazeera together aired a minute of silence in protest. Others took to Twitter to express their outrage and disdain, tweeting statements and photos in solidarity under the tag “#FreeAJStaff.”
Many world leaders also expressed their disapproval at Egypt’s decision to jail journalists. Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she was “appalled” to learn about the verdict and urged Egypt to suspend its attempt to “muzzle” the media. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague called on Egypt to conduct a review of the sentence, calling it “unacceptable.” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said during a press conference that Egypt was “very aware” that his government holds “deep concerns” about what transpired on Monday.
The United States government expressed “deep concern” about the verdict in Egypt — the same sense of concern government officials tend to express whenever they are faced with a challenging and uncomfortable international crisis. It’s the same sense of concern President Obama has expressed about Australians fighting on behalf of Islamic militants or Russia’s aggression in Ukraine or last year’s Egyptian coup that is the root of present-day media oppression.
Reporters seem less willing to accept the government’s “concern” about their colleagues in Egypt, especially considering the United States released $572 million in financial aid to Egypt just one day before the verdict came down. In addition to the money, the U.S. has pledged to deliver 10 Apache helicopters that will be used by the Egyptian military to combat terrorism.
To journalists — and the general public — the distribution of more than half a billion dollars in financial aid and military equipment comes off as an endorsement of the Egyptian government by the United States.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, the State Department’s Deputy Press Secretary Marie Harf refuted claims that the U.S. government’s approach is black and white, asserting the funds were released out of a shared strategic interest in securing the region and acknowledging the Obama administration’s concern with regard to Egypt’s recent record on human rights.
“We can on the one hand express our displeasure, express our concern about human rights, and also say but there is, at times, a shared interest to provide some assistance,” Harf told reporters on Monday. “This is about the fact that we have shared strategic interests, that the assistance we provide to them — all of that is done in service of those shared strategic interests. It’s all where the United States national security interests lie.”
The message is crystal clear: The United States government values national security interest above press freedom and other human rights. And it’s not just limited to Egypt: At home, the U.S. government has demonized — even attempted to criminalize — journalism that flies in the face of national security.
Take, for instance, the Department of Justice’s investigation of FOX News journalist James Rosen in which law enforcement officials labeled the journalist a “co-conspirator” for reporting on information that had been leaked by a former government employee. For months, federal authorities monitored Rosen’s personal e-mails and visits to the State Department after the reporter filed a story based on classified intelligence that detailed North Korea’s desire to launch a nuclear weapons test.
One week before the Rosen report, the Associated Press revealed federal authorities had obtained two months worth of phone records in what the news organization called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” against its reporters. Government officials gathered records of more than 20 phone lines during an investigation into an AP report centered on a foiled terrorism plot. Like the Rosen report, the AP leaned on classified information that was not authorized for public consumption in its report. The AP noted that phone records belonging to six employees involved in the story were among those seized by the Justice Department.
In another case, New York Times reporter James Risen faces jail time for refusing to testify against a former CIA agent suspected of leaking information to him. The Justice Department has been aggressive in encouraging Risen to testify against his alleged source, going so far as to ask courts not to take up the reporter’s appeal. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court decided not to hear Risen’s case, kicking the decision back to a lower court that found Risen could be held in contempt if he refuses to testify in the case. The Justice Department has yet to rescind its subpoena against the reporter.
But perhaps the most visible case of the government vs. the press is that involving Edward Snowden‘s decision to leak thousands of classified material to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. The Guardian’s series of reporting on the subject offered the public insight into warrantless surveillance programs targeted at individuals both abroad and at home. Among other things, Greenwald’s reporting on a clandestine National Security Agency program that collected the telephone records of every American customer in bulk prompted hearing on Capitol Hill and an eventual recalibration of the program (though it continues to exist in some form today).
For his reporting, Greenwald was demonized by pundits and government officials alike. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) claimed Greenwald acted as a criminal co-conspirator in the unauthorized leak of state secrets, and Representative Peter King (D-N.Y.) has repeatedly called for Greenwald’s arrest on the matter. Former NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander bluntly suggested that Greenwald and others should be legally restrained from filing reports based on classified information.
“I think it’s wrong that that newspaper reporters have all these documents…it just doesn’t make sense,” Alexander said in a Department of Defense video last October. “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don’t know how to do that. That’s more of the courts and the policymakers but, from my perspective, it’s wrong, and to allow this to go on is wrong.”
In at least one corner of the globe, the sentiment of stifling unfavorable reporting is shared. On Tuesday, newly-elected Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rejected calls to pardon the three jailed Al Jazeera journalists.
“The Egyptian judiciary is an independent and exalted judiciary,” al-Sisi said at a press appearance. “If we desire strong state institutions, we must respect court rulings and not comment on them, even if others don’t understand those rulings.”
Though widely condemned, Egypt’s prioritization of national security over media freedom is not different from the actions taken by the United States government. But unlike Egypt, the U.S. government is bound to the Constitution, which commits the government and its officials to press freedom and does not absolve that commitment in the interest of national security. If the American government is truly concerned about the treatment of journalists abroad, and if it absolutely values the principles of a free and democratic society, it must immediately funnel its condemnation into action — and it should start at home.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.