Journalism is not a crime

Our correspondent is studying Arabic in the Egyptian capitol and wants to share what her life is like through her blog.

In my previous blog post, I briefly referred to the jailing of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt: Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy, and the Australian Peter Greste. On 21 April, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Baher Mohamed about this case, his time in prison, and his life as it is now.

A few days ago, Shady Ibrahim, who is also (unjustly) linked to this case, gave me Baher’s phone number. I contacted him and two days later, we met up at a restaurant in Zamalek a bit before 2 p.m. Being a journalist himself, he was more than willing to help me out with my blog by telling me his story. Like him, there are still dozens of other journalists who are (unjustly) kept behind bars – in Egypt and in other countries all over the world – which makes his story extra important to tell.

Just doing their jobs

In June 2014, Mohamed and Peter were sentenced to seven years in prison. They gave Baher three years extra due to ‘possession of a weapon’ as he carried a spent bullet with him which he found when covering the revolution in Libya and had kept as a souvenir. The reason that the Egyptian court gave for their conviction of having ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news is believed to be incorrect.

I asked Baher what he thought was the real reason for their arrest. He told me that the three of them were simply doing their jobs, like any other professional journalists would do. He believes that the actual reason for their arrest was to intimidate journalists and to send the message that the system in Egypt can do anything. This clear oppression of freedom of press makes journalists a target now too, which is really horrible.

A beautiful metaphor Baher explained to me and which I will keep in mind for a very long time, is the metaphor of the market place. In any country where the media has only one side, something is wrong because media should be like a market place: a space where different groups can freely express their opinions and where people can afterwards choose which news they want to hear.

Mental torture

During the 411 days that Baher was imprisoned, he spent time in three different prisons, the worst of them being ‘the scorpion’, a part of Tora prison built for convicted terrorists. He described it as being disgusting in all its aspects. The cell was tiny, cold, dirty and had no beds. The food was horrible, the light was on all the time, there was always someone spying on them, and he saw daylight only once during the two and a half months he stayed there.

Although the three Al Jazeera journalists were not physically tortured, they were definitely tortured mentally. As an example, Baher’s wife and child were visiting him one time and at the end of the visit, his son wanted to kiss and hug him, but the officer said ‘no’. He could hear his son crying at the other end of the glass wall. Every time the officer would see him again after this, he would say, ‘Your son looks cute’, just to remind Baher of this moment.

Still not free

After 411 days, Baher was released from prison in February. He told me that he appreciates everything since he got out of prison, but that he is still not free. Sitting across the table from him, I noticed him looking around all the time. When I asked him whether he feels like he has to keep his guard up, he answered that he feels like he is constantly being watched and monitored.

His life is limited at the moment because he has to report to the police station every night, which stops him from going anywhere and doing things like taking his wife and children out for dinner and a movie. The case is still ongoing, which prevents him from doing the thing he really loves: working as a journalist.

On 22 April, Baher would have to attend a hearing in his trial at which a committee, having studied their possessions, would present their report. He says he doesn’t know what to expect from this hearing, as ‘everything is possible in Egypt – good and bad’. Being unsure of how long the trial will continue and his desire to live a normal life again make him nervous.

The idea of setting up something to fight for freedom of press and international protection of journalists is something he feels strongly that he needs to do. Although Baher has been released from prison, his fight is not over and he plans to continue to plead that journalism is not a crime.