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When journalists are silenced, public pays the high price of ignorance

By Sally Stapleton

Publication: The Day

Published August 03. 2014 4:00AM   Updated August 03. 2014 8:53PM
Heba Elkholy/El Shorouk via AP Photo
Journalists working for Al Jazeera, behind cage, at right, watch the June sentencing proceedings in a Cairo courtroom. Two were sentenced to seven years in prison and one to 10 years for their reporting.

Just this past week, Connecticut residents saw how aggressive reporting can inform the public in the New London superintendent of schools job search. Freedom of the press matters.

Yet around the world governments intimidate, arrest and lock up journalists. The impact is palpable. Press attacks have direct repercussions on limiting vital information necessary to inform the public and make it increasingly difficult to act with intelligence on the foreign policy questions of our time.

The so-called Al Jazeera 3 are prime examples of why readers worldwide should add their voices in objecting to journalist harassment.

On June 22, the eve of the Egyptian court's verdict, the three jailed journalists from Al Jazeera had every reason to believe the next day would bring their freedom. Egyptian Baher Mohamed, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste were locked in Egyptian jails Dec. 29, 2013. At first, they were in solitary confinement following charges of masterminding a plot to bring down the state by allegedly broadcasting false information in conspiracy with the Muslim Brotherhood. At least now they were jailed together in their small, 9½-by-13-foot cell.

In the hours before the verdict, they hugged as they listened to the radio broadcast of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's news conference from Cairo mentioning their case alongside the Egyptian president. Surely the six months already spent in jail would be enough "punishment" for having had the audacity to report news the military-backed regime did not want to hear.

However, the courtroom disintegrated into chaos on June 23 as the judge announced their actual punishment: Fahmy and Greste received seven years, Mohamed, 10 years. The extra three years tacked on against Baher Mohamed was a weapons charge brought when Egyptian authorities found a single spent police bullet among his possessions.

An empty bullet casing is a common memento kept by journalists covering conflict. It's a symbol of surviving the too many chances taken to land a story, a routine reminder that working in a war zone means you might not live to meet your next deadline.

In the case of Baher Mohamed, the empty casing became a symbol of arbitrary justice rendered by a kangaroo court.

"The devil guided them to use journalism and direct it toward activities against this nation," the Egyptian court wrote in a 50-page statement following the verdicts.

Today marks 218 days in captivity.

For these three men it has meant a loss of freedom without justification. For readers worldwide, the result has been a loss of robust news coverage from a critical region - the Middle East.

Such places, where it's most dangerous, journalists keep in greater contact with their competitors as a method of mutual protection. And where it's most dangerous, the fewer the eyes and the fewer the credible witnesses on the ground.

The end result is a ripple effect, silent and insidious, obvious but impossible to quantify. Jailing journalists limits the "multiplicity of ideas" critical to understanding complicated stories.

Robyn Kriel, the bureau chief for East Africa eNews in Nairobi, where foreign correspondent Greste is based, says she's worked alongside him for the past three years. Their first meeting was in South Africa in 2008 and her first impression was "awe...for being so brave to ask questions lots of us didn't dare to. I have admired his work, and extremely fair and balanced reporting, ever since."

Events in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Ukraine, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt have shifted world leaders' priorities. These events require elucidation. The more intimidation the world permits without objection, the less the enlightenment of a free flow of information from these places.

But outside pressure can help. The innumerable stories and social media outrage are producing hints of an Egyptian government desiring a way out of the mounting U.S. government and international opposition to the jailing of the Al Jazeera 3.

Two weeks after the verdicts, Egyptian President al-Sisi acknowledged the journalists' sentences had a "very negative" impact on his country and added that he wished they had been deported rather than put on trial. Egypt was not among the invitees to the Obama administration's Aug. 5 African Summit, but the first week of July that snub was substituted with a belated invitation. Greater interaction by the United States has the potential for a resolution being reached.

Lest one thinks only journalists outside the continental 48 face arbitrary jail time, New York Times reporter James Risen, who won a Pulitzer in 2006 for his reporting detailing government wiretapping, is waiting for the U.S. government's next move. Will they require him to testify to reveal an anonymous source in his book, "The State of War"? His attorney has said for months that Risen will not testify, which would lead to a standoff that could bring jail time.

Should our government proceed, it will be the height of irony. At a time when it's known the government has tapped even private citizens' communications, how could it argue that the only way to access information of national security importance is through James Risen alone?

Get involved: The Al Jazeera journalists' Twitter accounts: @PeterGreste, @Repent11 and @Bahrooz.

Sally Stapleton is the managing editor for online and photography at The Day. Prior to The Day, she was the deputy executive photo editor for the Associated Press. In 2006, she formed a journalism education nonprofit, the Great Lakes Media Institute, to work with journalists in sub-Saharan Africa. Stapleton's Twitter account: @sestapleton

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