It was six months ago Sunday when Egyptian authorities raided a hotel room in Cairo used by reporters at the global TV network Al Jazeera. The journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested December 29, and they have been held in jail ever since. Last week they were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison for allegedly "spreading false news" in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed by the government a "terrorist group." The sentence has shocked journalists and supporters of press freedom around the world. And the Al Jazeera reporters are not alone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is currently holding at least 11 other journalists in prison. We are joined by Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English. "We were reporting in Egypt objectively and accurately," Negm says. "Throughout the trial there was not one piece of evidence against them of falsifying information or supporting any group which is outlawed. That was all false. The sentence came as a real shock."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We are broadcasting from Bonn, Germany, at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum. I’m Amy Goodman.
It was six months ago on Sunday when Egyptian authorities raided a hotel room in Cairo used by reporters at the global TV network Al Jazeera. The journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested that day, December 29. They have been held in jail ever since. Last week, they were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison for allegedly "spreading false news" in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed by the government a "terrorist group." The sentence has shocked journalists and supporters of press freedom around the world. And the Al Jazeera reporters are not alone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is currently holding at least 11 other journalists in prison.
Here in Bonn, Germany, we’re joined by Salah Negm. He’s the director of news at Al Jazeera English. He formerly was the director of BBC Arabic news service in London. He’s here in Bonn for the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum.
I just heard you speak. This is very dire times for Al Jazeera. You recently had another reporter released from prison, Abdullah Elshamy, after 10 months. Can you talk about what is happening to your reporters in Egypt?
SALAH NEGM: Well, as you know, the three Al Jazeera English reporters were sentenced, as you said, to between seven and 10 years, and there are six other Al Jazeera journalists who were sentenced in absentia for 10 years each. Some of them are Egyptians. They cannot go back to Egypt. They lost their property, their contact with their families. And that’s only for being journalists. We were reporting in Egypt objectively and accurately. And actually, throughout the trial there was not one piece of evidence against them of falsifying information or supporting any group which is outlawed. That was all false. And the sentence came as a real shock and surprise to everyone, because it was out of law totally.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about the evidence they showed. I mean, in one of the sequences, the observers in the courtroom said, they showed—was it Peter Greste’s family on vacation?
SALAH NEGM: Yes, yes, and it was weird and absurd. They got things, I think, from the laptops of the correspondents. Some of them were just clips from Sky News Arabia, which is a totally different channel. Some of them were about football matches, and one of them was about a vacation, family vacation.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Baher Mohamed was sentenced to 10 years, the other two, Fahmy and Greste, to seven years, because he had a shell casing. I mean, as reporters, we pick up many things on the streets. Some talk about having souvenirs, but often, if you find ammunition like that, it is evidence. It’s something that you can see, for example, where ammunition comes from.
SALAH NEGM: Of course. That’s part of our jobs of investigating and trying to verify facts. If that ammunition, for example, was a government issue, that will direct the finger to, let’s say, the police force. If it is not, then it will be an opposition group or a lone operator in a demonstration or something like that. I covered news myself in Iraq and other places, and I used to do that. That’s part of what we are doing. And sometimes—I will not deny that—we take things like this sometimes as a souvenir for great coverage from a very dangerous situation or a danger zone.
AMY GOODMAN: But the court said in the verdict and the sentencing, where he got an extra three years—
SALAH NEGM: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —this was possession of ammunition.
SALAH NEGM: They considered it ammunition. And I don’t know how can you consider a shell, a bullet shell, an ammunition. It’s not used, but—it can’t be used by anyone.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happens now? What is Al Jazeera doing to get these journalists out of prison?
SALAH NEGM: We are continuing our solidarity campaign throughout the world and, actually, asking the Egyptian government to take action and release them immediately, because their sentence was unjust to start with. There is an appeal process, but after the sentence and seeing the whole process of trial, we are not very confident that it will really go in the right path.
AMY GOODMAN: Is Al Jazeera speaking to the Egyptian government?
SALAH NEGM: No, we have our legal team who is representing us there. But I don’t know—
AMY GOODMAN: The president, Sisi, has the power to pardon or to commute these sentences, is that right, at this point?
SALAH NEGM: Yes. Yes, the president has the power to pardon anyone who’s sentenced. But we shouldn’t only think—I mean, Al Jazeera journalists are very important to us, but we think about other journalists who are detained, as well, and who will be sentenced for their work as journalists trying to convey the facts and truth to the people. But apart from that, also there were some very illogical sentences in Egypt of hundreds of people to execution. And I think the government has to take an action. You cannot think about, for example, executing 300 people or imprisoning journalists just for doing their work.
AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State—the U.S. secretary of state—John Kerry was in Egypt the day before the sentences came down. In fact, one of the reporters, Mohamed Fahmy, shouted from his cage as the verdict came down, "Where is John Kerry?" The U.S. is resuming, at this point, something like $500 million in military aid to Egypt. What is your comment on this?
SALAH NEGM: It’s difficult to comment on this because politics between countries are different. But what we expect from the United States is to defend the freedom of speech as one of its basic principle embedded in the United States Constitution and foreign policy. And we expect that its action will follow the principle, really.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to the U.S. government? I mean, the timing of this trip, the day before the journalists were sentenced—now, the U.S. government has, and John Kerry has, conveyed that they are upset with these verdicts—
SALAH NEGM: Yes, he did.
AMY GOODMAN: —but the actions are different. What have they said to you?
SALAH NEGM: He had strong comments afterwards. I think it was in a press conference in Iraq the second day. And actually, we appreciate his comments. We speak to officials from different governments, and we are seeking their support, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you covering Egypt now? Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera America, Al Jazeera Arabic, the local Al Jazeera, the kind of C-SPAN for Al Jazeera—for Egypt that Al Jazeera ran, none of these networks can operate?
SALAH NEGM: In the current, current atmosphere of news, being banned from one country wouldn’t stop you from covering this country. There are several ways, and technology and actually help of other journalists will help us in covering the events in Egypt. So we didn’t stop covering the events in Egypt. What we are lacking is our own correspondents, which are the eyes and ears of the viewer. But we have correspondents helping us from other networks, which showed really good solidarity with us.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, we just got word from Al Jazeera that there was a bomb that went off near the presidential palace in Cairo. I believe two police officers were killed, and news is developing. Reuters has confirmed this. But how do you protect your reporters around the world?
SALAH NEGM: We take very strict measures when we send reporters to areas of tension or war. We provide them with all protective gears, armored cars, trackers if they want to go to somewhere that we lose contact by telephone or whatever, so there are satellite trackers. We do risk assessment. We have extraction plans, extraction teams, security advisers with them. So we take every possible precaution for that. But first of all, the reporter himself has to be convinced and believe in the mission he is about to do. And it’s a voluntary thing. We cannot ask someone to go against his will. It has to come from the reporter himself.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the #FreeAJStaff campaign?
SALAH NEGM: #FreeAJStaff campaign, it’s a campaign for collecting support for actually telling the Egyptian government that what happened was unjust, and they have to free the reporters immediately, as soon as possible. Think about Abdullah Elshamy, who is the Arabic reporter who stayed 10 months, was on hunger strike for so many days, and then he was released for—just a few days ago.
AMY GOODMAN: And he tweeted out a picture of himself holding that sign—
SALAH NEGM: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: "#FreeAJStaff." Salah Negm, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of news at Al Jazeera English. He is usually in Doha, but he’s in Bonn today for the Deutsche Welle Media Forum that we’re both covering and attending.