As if the risk of being killed is not enough. Must journalists endure the threat of imprisonment as well as the threat of death or serious injury? It is not just the outrageous, unfair, trumped-up crudity of the charges against the three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced to years of imprisonment in Cairo – we are used to this treatment from Third World pseudo-revolutionary countries, although why Egypt should wish to be among their number is a political mystery in itself.
No, it is the bald fact that prison for journalists in one of the world’s most populous, historic countries must now be regarded as a normal part of the risks we take in covering the world. Just as rape is a vile tool of war, so jail must be a routine method of shutting us up. And in an awful sense, our Western leaders go along with this. Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste expected to be freed on Monday, although they must have known Egypt and “justice” do not have a lot in common.
John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, raised the three journalists’ cases with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before handing over almost half-a-billion dollars in aid to Egypt on Sunday. Sisi took the cash. And did nothing for the journalists. And when the Australians asked Sisi to intervene, he lectured them on the independence of the Egyptian judiciary. Oh, would that it was indeed “independent”. Was the Egyptian hanging judge who sentenced 300 Muslim Brotherhood members to death “independent” when he appalled the world with his bloodlust last month?
But let’s remember the Arab Gulf. Al Jazeera is a Qatari foreign policy project and Qatar supported the elected President, Mohamed Morsi, before Sisi rescued his beloved Egyptian people by chucking the bounder from power. And at one stroke, Egypt lost $10bn (£5.9bn) in Qatari funding – which makes Kerry’s half-billion look pretty tame.
The Saudis stepped in, of course, as they have with the Sunni chaps now threatening Iraq, to underwrite all Egypt’s debts (so long, of course, as Sisi leaves the Egyptian Salafists alone). And how to punish those pesky Qataris? Why, bang up their journos, of course. For “aiding terrorists”, for God’s sake.
As I write these words, I have beside my desk a cartridge case from a battle between the Lebanese army and Arafat’s PLO, shrapnel from Israeli artillery and a hunk of a shell case from the USS New Jersey, fired at a Druze village in 1983. So I guess that makes me guilty of assisting terrorists in the eyes of Lebanon, Israel and the US.
Reporters die on battlefields, are targeted in conflicts, are assassinated in all the continents of the world. Occasionally, like poor Farzad Bazoft ofThe Observer in 1990, they are accused of being spies and hanged – in this case on the orders of Saddam Hussein – and we rage about it for a while and then bash on with our work regardless. Maybe we spend too much time fearing for the lives of our own Western journos – forgetting all too quickly that hundreds of Arab reporters and photographers (in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, you name it) pay with their lives for doing what we do, but at the mercy of their own regimes. Include non-Arab Iran in that.
But the dictators of the Middle East only do to reporters what our own leaders would do to us, if they could. Didn’t a US delegation tell Saddam – before his Kuwait invasion – that his problem was with journalists? Didn’t the Americans shoot down our colleagues without compunction in Iraq? Haven’t the Israelis killed journalists and their assistants without punishment? When did you hear Americans or Brits complain about that? My guess is that Sisi will release the three Al Jazeera men on appeal. And we’ll thank him from the bottom of our Western hearts.