The network's Cairo-based staff, who stand accused of running a terror cell from a luxury hotel, find themselves caught in the middle of a regional power struggle.
CAIRO — Last summer, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy was one of thousands of protesters who took to Tahrir Square to give Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian army chief, a mandate to "confront terrorism" -- the Egyptian government's euphemism for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Tomorrow, he will appear in court on the receiving end of that mandate: He stands accused of running a terrorist cell from a luxury hotel in Cairo.
Fahmy, who was hired in September as Al Jazeera English's bureau chief here, is one of three journalists from the channel who have spent nearly seven weeks behind bars. They were arrested in late December and have since disappeared into Cairo's Tora Prison, held alongside Muslim Brotherhood leaders and jihadists. After more than a month in detention, they were finally charged in late January with everything from broadcasting false news to terrorism, and their first court hearing will be held on Feb. 20.
Foreign journalists here describe the arrests and trumped-up charges as a warning shot to the entire press corps, the most egregious signs of a press crackdown that has seen dozens of journalists detained or attacked.
But it is no coincidence that the charges are directed at a network that Egyptian security officials often describe as the media wing of an enemy state. The Qatar-owned Al Jazeera has continued to give airtime to Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist leaders, emerging as the only high-profile outlet for their members since the Egyptian government's brutal crackdown last summer.
The Egyptian government's level of hostility wasn't quite clear to Al Jazeera management on the night of Dec. 29, when police knocked on the door of room 2056 at the Marriott hotel in Cairo's upscale Zamalek neighborhood. Peter Greste, the channel's East Africa correspondent, was in the hotel with Fahmy; he'd been in Egypt for 10 days, covering over the Christmas holiday. Baher Mohamed, a producer, was arrested from his home shortly after the hotel raid.
Two journalists from the Arabic channel had been jailed since the summer: Abdullah al-Shami was detained in August, and is now three weeks into a hunger strike; Mohamed Badr was picked up in July, held for six months, then finally acquitted and released last week.
The English channel had been treated differently, however. One of its crews was arrested in Suez in July, another in Cairo the following month; both were freed after a few days in detention.
"Honestly, when we first heard, we thought they'd all be released in the morning," said Heather Allan, the head of newsgathering at Al Jazeera English. "We were operating quite openly in the Marriott ... we thought it would blow over, they'd get a smack on the wrists and a march to the airport."
However, Al Jazeera Arabic's sympathetic coverage of Islamist leaders appears to have contributed to the decision to expand the crackdown to the channel's English-language affiliate.
"One of the things that leads to all of this is that Qatar is hosting, supporting, providing a place of refuge for Brotherhood leaders," said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. "They're hosting them, and providing a platform, through Al Jazeera."
Those leaders include Essam Abdel Magid, a member of the hardline Gema'a al-Islamiyya wanted on charges of incitement to murder. The Egyptian government asked Interpol to help arrest Abdel Magid, who previously served 25 years in prison for his role in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Yet he popped up in Doha on Dec. 1, in an interview with Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, in which he accused the army of siding with "religious minorities," an ugly reference to Egypt's Coptic Christian population.
Other Islamist leaders supportive of deposed President Mohammed Morsi, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Gamal Heshmat, have appeared in recent weeks on both the Arabic channel and its Egypt affiliate, Mubasher Misr. The channel routinely gives airtime to guests with sharply sectarian and reactionary views, which often go unchallenged. The Washington Post reported in November that the network has also paid to host several exiled Egyptian Islamist leaders in hotels in Doha.
None of this makes it onto Al Jazeera English. The two channels are entirely separate: different management, different editorial lines, even physically separate buildings in Doha. "We plow our own furrow, and what we do on AJE we're proud of. It's accurate, balanced, fair," said Sue Turton, a Doha-based correspondent and presenter for Al Jazeera English also charged by Egyptian prosecutors. "We are a different channel."
If Egyptian authorities had wanted to arrest Al Jazeera English's team at an earlier date, it would have been easy to find them. It was no secret that the channel had been using the Marriott suite as a studio since authorities raided their offices in August. The Marriott, after all, is a state-owned property in a country where hotels share guest lists with police.
Nevertheless, Egyptian security officials and pro-government media have portrayed their discovery of what they call the "Marriott terror cell" as a major intelligence coup. A private television channel, Tahrir TV, last week aired a 20-minute video of the arrests, set to dramatic music from the soundtrack of Thor: The Dark World. An unseen cameraman pans across computers, microphones, and other bits of mundane equipment. Officers question Fahmy in Arabic, asking him about the names of his cameramen and his salary arrangements with the channel.
Allan, meanwhile, has made several visits to Cairo since the arrests, mostly to meet with the lawyers and embassy officials working on the case. Greste is Australian and Fahmy holds Canadian citizenship; representatives from both embassies have met with them and with the network. Allan also met with representatives from the U.S. embassy, "just for a background briefing," she said.
On her first visit, Allan also met with officials from the State Information Service (SIS), who criticized the channel's employees for working without credentials. Greste, like several correspondents before him, was not accredited. "But our Egyptian staff are accredited, and were until the end of the year," Allan said.
Obtaining those credentials has become increasingly difficult for every foreign correspondent in Cairo -- not just Al Jazeera staffers. The press center last year started requiring journalists to submit letters from the Egyptian embassy in the country which the news organization is based as a prerequisite for receiving press cards. And earlier this month, the SIS informed journalists that it will not issue permanent press cards for 2014 until March at the earliest, forcing them to apply for flimsy-looking temporary cards every few weeks or to use expired ones.
All three of Al Jazeera English's journalists were transferred in early January to Tora prison. Fahmy and Mohamed were jailed in the notorious maximum-security "Scorpion" wing, sharing a cell block with Mohamed al-Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
They were kept in solitary confinement without a bed or even a blanket, forced to sleep on the floor in an insect-infested cell. Fahmy's relatives say he didn't see the sun for weeks, nor did he receive medical treatment for a dislocated shoulder, which he suffered shortly before his arrest.
"He looked totally different. It wasn't him at all," a family member said after visiting him last weekend. "And it got worse. After the 25th of January, he was prevented from having food from his family, they didn't allow him to change his clothes ... they all wear white, but it was very dirty. They even shaved his head. And all this happened before they had any charges against them."
Charges finally surfaced in a prosecution statement leaked to local media on Jan. 29. It accused 20 journalists, many of whom had no connection to Al Jazeera, of broadcasting false information to "convince the international community that Egypt was undergoing a civil war." The 16 Egyptian defendants were also charged with "belonging to a terrorist organization," the Muslim Brotherhood, while four foreigners were accused of aiding the group.
The initial charge sheet contained no names, only nationalities: The foreigners were listed as two British citizens, an Australian, and a Dutch woman.
The document prompted fears among the small circle of Dutch correspondents in Cairo. "At first I thought it was me on that list, because I've written for Al Jazeera English," said Brenda Stoter, a Dutch journalist who often reports from Cairo.
Her friend Rena Netjes, a correspondent for several Dutch media outlets, asked the embassy to follow up on the reports. "And the next afternoon, I got an email: 'Can you come to the embassy?' ... I got the scare of my life," Netjes said. "I thought at any moment the police would come through the door. There was a chance I could end up in Tora that night."
As Netjes drove to the Dutch embassy from her home in eastern Cairo, she saw journalists starting to tweet the names of the accused. "I saw on people writing 'Johanna Ideniette,' and I knew it was me. I thought, I have to make it to the embassy," she said. (Johanna is her baptismal name; Ideniette appears to be a misspelling of the Dutch word for "identity.")
Netjes believes she was targeted because she met with Fahmy at the Marriott on Dec. 14, to talk about the insurgency in the Sinai. Hotel security took a copy of her passport, which could have led prosecutors to her. Following her visit to the Dutch embassy, she spent the next few nights moving from apartment to apartment, until the embassy finally secured permission for her to leave Egypt on Feb. 3.
Also on the list was "Susan Melanie," which turned out to be Sue Turton. She made two reporting trips to Cairo between September and early November. "I was in Ukraine covering the demonstrations there when the general prosecutor started leaking the list," she said. "There was some confusion, but when I saw the list myself, it had my first two names. I instantly knew it was me, and the bosses pulled me back to Doha."
In a statement released on Feb. 5, Al Jazeera said that nine of its employees were among the 20 people charged. "I was sitting in the anchor chair, and read out that myself and these other people had been charged. It was a bit of a surreal moment," Turton said.
The network is not sure whether Egypt has asked other regional countries, perhaps even Interpol, to apprehend the "fugitives." So Turton is being careful about where they travel, avoiding Gulf countries that supported Morsi's overthrow, for example.
Another person named in the charge sheet is Anas Mohamed el-Beltagy, the son of jailed Muslim Brotherhood official Mohamed Beltagy. Ragia Omran, a lawyer working on the case, said it was unclear why he was included. Beltagy was arrested on Dec. 31, two days after the Al Jazeera team, and was accused of inciting riots on university campuses.
The recent arrests have undeniably had a chilling effect on the press. They are also part of a broader crackdown: More than 80 journalists have been arbitrarily detained in recent months, according to local and international rights groups. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in its annual report that Egypt was the third-deadliest country for reporters in 2013, and the country ranked 159th on Reporters Without Borders's annual press freedom index, a notch below Pakistan.
But it's Al Jazeera that has borne the brunt of this hostility -- and not just from the government. On Jan. 25, two newspaper reporters were attacked by an angry mob in Tahrir Square that inexplicably decided they were Al Jazeera employees. Later that day, a police officer warned a cameraman from the MBC satellite channel to stop filming a pro-Morsi protest. Otherwise, he threatened to tell local residents that the crew worked for Al Jazeera, then watch as they were attacked.
If Turton and Allan blame their Arabic counterparts for this intense hostility, they won't say so directly. But they do not exactly defend their sister channel, either. "I can talk for us, as far as we're concerned, we stand by our reporting ... from across the road, it's their editorial line," Allan said.
For many Egyptians, however, and certainly for the government, that distinction no longer seems relevant. "We had a slight fear when he told us he was going to work there, because of the situation in Egypt," said Adel Fahmy, Mohamed's brother. "[Al Jazeera English] is totally different, and should be perceived in a different way, but unfortunately it's not ... so we had a slight fear, but we never thought it would actually happen."
Fahmy and Mohamed were moved last week into the same cell as Greste in Mulhaq al-Mazra, a lower-security annex of Tora.
Turton will be tried in absentia at the Feb. 20 hearing, and plans to submit affidavits in her defense. Allan plans to attend the trial, though Egypt has now started requiring visitors from Doha to obtain visas in advance.
Fahmy hopes to defend himself, a family member said, though he isn't sure if the court will allow it. "He told me the prosecutors confronted him about having Muslim Brotherhood contacts in his phone. It's ridiculous," said the relative, who asked to remain anonymous.
Ironically, Fahmy even joined two big anti-Brotherhood demonstrations last year -- as a protester, not a journalist. Family members say he went to Tahrir Square on June 30, the first day of huge anti-Morsi protests that preceded his ouster. And he went again on July 26, to give Sisi the "mandate" that has now been turned against Fahmy and his colleagues.
"He was very happy ... he was so proud to see the Egyptian people happy. It breaks my heart to see this happen," the relative said.
SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images