The vile jailers of journalists

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, Sept. 1:

When he gained power in 2012 after the downfall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, it looked as though Mohammed Morsi might end the government’s history of silencing independent voices in the press. It was a mistaken hope. Under the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated administration, prosecutors soon were going after journalists who dared to question the new regime.

After his removal by the military in 2013, hopes rose again that the news media would have greater freedom to scrutinize the nation’s rulers. But they were also dashed. Recently, in a decision that surprised even critics of the government, a court sentenced a trio of reporters from Al-Jazeera English to three years in prison.

The case against them was obviously phony. Mohammed Fahmy, Baher Mohammed and Peter Greste, the court found, had “broadcast false news” about Egypt. They were alleged to have conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood to spread lies, but, as The New York Times Cairo correspondent reported, the prosecution team “offered no evidence of either collaboration with the Brotherhood or of any erroneous broadcasts.”

Even the iron-fisted President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi looked moderate by comparison with the court. He had said he’d prefer to deport the journalists, who were arrested in January 2014. But the president can’t evade responsibility for the suffocating press climate in Egypt.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says the country has never had so many journalists behind bars — 18 as of June 1. “The threat of imprisonment in Egypt is part of an atmosphere in which authorities pressure media outlets to censor critical voices and issue gag orders on sensitive topics,” it says.

Al-Jazeera has been banned entirely — partly because it refuses to toe the government line and partly, it seems, because it is funded by the government of Qatar, which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and thus at odds with Cairo. In any case, its treatment is just one facet of the regime’s war on journalists, which often involves “beatings, abuse and raids of their homes and confiscation of their property,” according to CPJ.

The travesty in Egypt shouldn’t distract outsiders from attacks on news organizations and other independent voices elsewhere. The biggest jailer of journalists is the government of China.

Lately it has been gripped by the idea that the way to bolster your economy is to muzzle anyone offering unwelcome information. Nearly 200 people have been detained for allegedly “spreading rumors” online about matters like the Chinese stock market crash and the industrial disaster in Tianjin.

One reporter had to make a televised confession that his article on the stock market was “sensational” and “irresponsible.” The state-run news agency blamed the journalist for setting off “abnormal fluctuations” in share prices — as though concrete economic dangers might not explain the recent turmoil.

And let’s not forget the ongoing punishment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who is waiting to learn the verdict in his closed-door trial in Iran. Rezaian, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Iran, has been in custody for more than year, deprived of legal assistance and medical care.

He was charged with spying and propaganda, charges that could result in a 20-year sentence. But any evidence against Rezaian has yet to emerge. “If Iran had a case against Jason Rezaian, it would try him in public,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It doesn’t and won’t.”

Governments that rule through violence and lies have reason to fear the open airing of the truth. In persecuting journalists, though, they expose their malignant character beyond all doubt.


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