23 June 2014

Egypt: 'It Is Not a Crime to Carry a Camera,' UN Rights Chief Warns As Egypt Sentences Journalists

Photo: Gwen Lister
Mostefa Souag of Al Jazeera, right, and IPI's Alison Bethel McKenzie, centre, join a call on Egypt to free Al Jazeera staff on trial in Cairo (file photo).

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed deep concern over a string of recent court decisions in Egypt, including the verdicts and heavy jail sentences handed down today to three Al Jazeera journalists, as well as 11 other defendants who were tried in absentia.

"The Secretary-General is deeply concerned by recent court decisions in Egypt, particularly the confirmation of death sentences for 183 people and the sentencing of journalists, including from Al Jazeera today, to lengthy jail terms," said a statement issued by his spokesperson in New York.

"Proceedings that clearly appear not to meet basic fair trial standards, particularly those resulting in the imposition of the death penalty, are likely to undermine prospects for long-term stability," it continued.

The statement also noted that the constitutionality of the law regulating protest will be reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court. Mr. Ban recalled that both he and Ms. Pillay had expressed concerns that the law could lead to serious breaches of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and needed to be brought in conformity with Egypt's international human rights obligations.

"The Secretary-General stresses that participation in peaceful protests or criticism of the Government should not be grounds for detention or prosecution. He believes Egypt will only be strengthened by empowering all its citizens to fully exercise their rights," said the statement.

In her statement, Ms. Pillay said she was "shocked and alarmed" by the verdicts and jail terms of between 7 and 10 years handed down to three journalists and the 11 other defendants tried in absentia.

While noting that they are subject to appeal, Ms. Pillay said the Al Jazeera verdicts, along with Saturday's confirmation by an Egyptian court of the death penalty for 183 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters convicted in an earlier mass trial, are the latest in a string of prosecutions and court proceedings that have been "rife with procedural irregularities and in breach of international human rights law."

The High Commissioner expressed her alarm at the increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks on both media and civil society activists in Egypt, which is hampering their ability to operate freely.

"I am particularly concerned about the role of the judicial system in this clampdown," she said. "Harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists, including bloggers, as well as violent attacks by unidentified assailants, have become commonplace," she added, noting that at least six journalists have been killed in Egypt since August 2013.

"Media employees trying to carry out their work in Egypt are now confronted by an extremely difficult and dangerous environment. They should be protected not prosecuted," declared Ms. Pillay.

The High Commissioner went on to say that the charges levelled against the journalists, which include harming national unity and social peace, spreading false reports, and membership of a "terrorist organization," are far too broad and vague, and therefore reinforce the belief that the real target is freedom of expression.

She noted that charges based on Egypt's anti-terrorism law have also been used to bring convictions in a number of other trials, including the two mass trials of more than 1,100 people in Minya earlier in the year that led to at least 220 people being handed death sentences, including the 183 whose death sentences were confirmed on Saturday.

"I believe these mass trials and death penalty convictions are obscene, and a complete travesty of justice," the High Commissioner said.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a binding treaty that Egypt ratified in 1982, states that 'Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.'

"It is not a crime to carry a camera, or to try to report various points of views about events," Ms. Pillay said. "It is not a crime to criticize the authorities, or to interview people who hold unpopular views. Journalists and civil society members should not be arrested, prosecuted, beaten up or sacked for reporting on sensitive issues. They should not be shot for trying to report or film things we, the public, have a right to know are happening."

She urged the Egyptian authorities to promptly release all journalists and other media employees imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities, including Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Bahar Mohamed, the three journalists who were convicted and sentenced on Monday.

Ms. Pillay, a former international judge, also called on Egypt's judicial establishment to conduct a review of the handling of these and other cases. "Egypt's reputation, and especially the reputation of its judiciary as an independent institution, are at stake," she said. "There is a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt."

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InFocus

Leaders Criticize Egypt Over Journalists' Jailing

Mostefa Souag of Al Jazeera, right, and IPI's Alison Bethel McKenzie, centre, join a call on Egypt to free Al Jazeera staff on trial in Cairo (file photo).

World leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have criticized the conviction and jail sentences of three Al Jazeera journalists. Read more »