CAIRO — Egyptian authorities on Wednesday charged 20 journalists who work for the Al Jazeera satellite news channel, including five who hold foreign citizenship, with being agents of the Muslim Brotherhood and accused them of plotting to defame Egypt and of running a terrorist cell out of a luxurious Cairo hotel.
If convicted, they might face life in prison.
Among those charged were Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian who was the news channel’s acting Egypt bureau chief, and Peter Greste, an Australian who was the channel’s English-language correspondent. Both are well known internationally and have worked for Britain’s BBC. Fahmy, who’s worked for CNN, McClatchy and The New York Times, is the author of a respected book on Egyptian politics. Two Britons and a Dutch citizen also were charged.
The charges shocked local and international journalists, human rights groups, the families of those detained and even some Egyptians, and they dashed any hopes that the military-backed government would embrace the freedom of speech referenced in a newly ratified constitution.
The state prosecutor’s formal filing of accusations – by far the most serious charges leveled against journalists – signaled that those who cover opponents of the government might face imprisonment as terrorists alongside the nation’s worst criminals.
Since the military ousted former President Mohammed Morsi last July, the government has undertaken a massive crackdown on his supporters and other political dissidents that’s resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. One Egyptian human rights group has estimated that more than 21,000 people have been detained. Two journalism advocacy groups said there had been at least 30 incidents of journalists being harassed or arrested for doing their work so far this month.
“Security forces are still repressing journalists in an unprecedented manner,” the Egyptian Journalist Syndicate said in a statement issued before the charges were announced.
The government has particular disdain for Al Jazeera, which it considers a Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece. Within hours of Morsi’s ouster, the military shut down the network’s operations in Egypt.
Four of those charged – Greste, Fahmy and two Egyptians, Bahar Mohamed and Mohamed Fawzy – were arrested Dec. 29 at Al Jazeera’s makeshift offices in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. Fawzy was released days later but the others remain in Tora prison, which is reserved for Egypt’s worst criminals.
The statement from the state prosecutor’s office said five more of those charged had been arrested – though it didn’t name them – and that warrants had been issued for the remaining 12, though it’s unclear whether they’re in the country.
In its statement, the state prosecutor’s office divided the charges between Egyptians and non-Egyptians, saying that together the group had orchestrated the “Marriott terror cell.” The non-Egyptians are alleged to have trained their Egyptian counterparts in using cameras, computers and other technology to produce false news.
The non-Egyptians colluded with the Egyptian defendants “and provided them with information, equipment and money, as well as broadcasting false information and rumors to convince the international community that Egypt was undergoing a civil war,” the statement charged.
Despite his dual Canadian citizenship, Fahmy was charged as an Egyptian.
The Egyptians were accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency. On Dec. 25, the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
“The general prosecution has charged the Egyptian defendants with crimes of belonging to a terrorist organization in violation of the law, calling for disrupting the law and preventing state institutions from conducting their affairs; assault on the personal liberties of citizens and damaging national unity and social peace; using terrorism as a means to implement its purposes,” Wednesday’s statement read.
Among the evidence against the group, the statement said, were accounts by experts who said filmed news events had been manipulated.
Greste has written two letters during his detention, calling the mounting case against him an attack on freedom of the press.
He’s held in better conditions than Mohamed and Fahmy are, but authorities denied a last-minute appeal Wednesday by Al Jazeera for his release.
Mohamed and Fahmy have been in solitary confinement alongside jihadists such as Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaida head Ayman al Zawahiri. Fahmy and Mohammed haven’t been allowed beds, outdoor light, regular exercise or books. After a series of bombings in Cairo last Friday, guards removed all items from their cells, including food that their families had provided. Fahmy, who fractured his arm the week before his arrest, hasn’t been allowed medical care, according to family members.
Fahmy’s mother, who arrived in Egypt earlier this month from Montreal, visited him Wednesday. She said his clothes were dirty and his spirit appeared to have been broken.
She said prison officials had shaved his head, and that he wasn’t being allowed to shave and now sported a short beard.
His family was devastated by the news of the charges against him. “I’m in complete shock,” said his brother, Adel, who lives in Kuwait.
In perhaps a sign of the fear the case has generated, Fahmy’s lawyer told McClatchy on Wednesday that he no longer wants to be publicly identified with the case. The lawyer declined to answer when he was asked why he’d reassured Fahmy’s family and friends for the past month that prosecutors no longer thought his client was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Youssef reported from Washington. Twitter: @AminaIsmail, @nancyayoussef