Al Jazeera drums up support for jailed journalists in Egypt

The network is distributing a simple message through traditional and social media: free them now.

Amnesty International contributed this image to the #FreeAJStaff Twitter trend
Amnesty International contributed this image to the #FreeAJStaff Twitter trend

NEW YORK: After an Egyptian court jailed three Al Jazeera English journalists on charges including aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news, the network is distributing a simple message through traditional and social media: free them now.

On Monday, an Egyptian judge said reporters Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy would be jailed for seven years. Baher Mohamed’s sentence included an additional three years, due to his possession of a bullet casing he found on the ground during a protest.

In December, the three journalists were arrested in Cairo while covering the aftermath of the army's removal of Mohamed Morsi from Egypt’s presidency.

Following the verdict, Al Jazeera English MD Al Anstey released a statement saying the reporters were sentenced "despite the fact that not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them."

He added that the only "sensible outcome" is for the verdict to be overturned.

"We must keep our voice loud to call for an end to their detention," he said in the statement. "The authorities in Egypt need to take responsibility for their actions and be held to account by the global community."

Al Jazeera America, a US basic cable and satellite news channel owned by the Qatari royal family's Al Jazeera Media Network, is handling communications for the situation internally, said Dawn Bridges, the company’s EVP of corporate communications.

The American branch is taking a lot of direction from Al Jazeera Media Network because "they are closer to the situation," Bridges noted. She added that Ehab Al Shihabi, interim CEO of Al Jazeera America and the executive director for international operations for Al Jazeera, is very involved even through the situation involves sister network Al Jazeera English.

"It really is all hands on board," she said. "The main message we are stressing is that [the convicted reporters] were only doing their job and this is just an egregious, egregious thing they are being held for. Free them now."  

Al Jazeera America distributed Anstey’s statement to all staffers, not just the editorial team, on Monday morning, along with a copy of an ad the company ran in Sunday’s New York Times. The ad displays a blank page with small text at the bottom that says, "This is what happens when you silence journalists. Show your support. Journalism is not a crime. #FreeAJStaff."

"We have been encouraging [our staffers] to retweet the ad, post it, and make comments about the situation," Bridges said.  

Externally, Al Jazeera America has distributed Anstey’s statement, targeting influencers, journalists, people with large followings in social media, editorial boards, think tanks, and policy makers; in essence, "anyone who has a large voice and influence," explained Bridges.

On social media, the company has also posted pictures of its editorial staffers and other journalists with tape over their mouths, using the #FreeAJStaff hashtag.

"We are going to have a planning meeting today," said Bridges. "Going forward, we will try to deploy as many tactics in as many different directions as we can [to support the reporters]."

Sentence draws international criticism
When the guilty verdict was announced Monday morning, various journalism organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists and groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International showed their support for the reporters through social media.

Politicians have also expressed concern over the verdict. UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg noted that the British government will press for an urgent review of the reporters’ cases. US Secretary of State John Kerry also issued a statement on Monday, referring to the verdict as "a deeply disturbing set-back to Egypt's transition."

In the statement, Kerry called on Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, to make his government’s intention to "observe Egypt’s commitment to the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the rule of law" clear to the public.

The hashtags #FreeAJStaff and #JournalismIsNotACrime trended on Twitter on Monday.

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