CAIRO – Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who is awaiting retrial after more than a year behind bars in Egypt on terrorism-related charges, said his employer – Al Jazeera English – is partially to blame for his grinding ordeal.
Fahmy said it would be “naive” and “misleading” to see the case purely as a crackdown on press freedom, because it was complicated by Al-Jazeera’s “negligence” and Qatar’s use of the outlet to “wage a media war” against Cairo.
“I am not losing sight of who put me in prison,” he said, referring to the Egyptian prosecutors, who failed to present any evidence related to the terror charges in a trial widely condemned by rights groups and major media outlets.
“However, Al-Jazeera’s epic negligence has made our situation harder, more difficult, and gave our captor more firepower,” Fahmy said in an interview at his family home in a Cairo suburb.
“It is an infringement on freedom of speech to silence three innocent, recognized journalists. Yet a very important aspect of this case is Qatar abusing its Al-Jazeera Arabic platform in waging a media war against Egypt,” he said.
Al-Jazeera spokesmen did not respond to emails seeking comment. The broadcaster spearheaded a global media campaign calling for the release of the reporters, insisting they were unjustly punished for doing their job.
Egypt and Qatar have had tense relations since 2013, when the Egyptian military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi amid massive protests. Doha is a strong backer of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in the region. Cairo accused Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for Morsi’s supporters, charges denied by the broadcaster.
Fahmy maintained that Al-Jazeera English, for which he was bureau chief for just three months before being detained in December 2013, was doing balanced and independent reporting. Al-Jazeera’s Arabic affiliates, however, were the only remaining platform for Islamists to criticize the military-backed government after Morsi’s ouster.
Fahmy said his senior managers failed to provide the English network’s staff with enough security, and to explain to the Egyptian government that they were different from the Arabic stations.
“They should have provided a security umbrella and put the security of their staffers ahead of getting the story, because it was framed as Al-Jazeera and Qatar are challenging the Egyptian government,” he said.
He also said Al-Jazeera failed to provide press passes or equipment permits. Al-Jazeera has said that lacking press credentials is an administrative matter that should never have landed the reporters in criminal court.
After a purely Egyptian affiliate of the network was ordered closed by a court in September 2013, the network continued to broadcast from its Doha studios, relying on amateur videos. At least 11 defendants were tried with Fahmy and the others allegedly for providing amateur videos to the network.
Late last year, before a retrial was ordered, Al-Jazeera shut down its Egyptian affiliate, in what was seen as part of a thaw in the relations between Cairo and Doha. But tensions flared again over Egypt’s recent airstrikes in Libya, when an Egyptian official accused Qatar of funding terror groups there.
Fahmy said the new tiff will likely complicate matters for him.
“Like it or not, this case is a public opinion case and the judge could be affected by what is happening in the political arena,” he said.
Al-Jazeera’s lawyer quit during the course of the trial in a highly emotional scene in which he also accused the broadcaster of jeopardizing its staff by choosing to sue the Egyptian government for $150 million for closing its offices and jamming its signal at the height of the trial.
Fahmy is now raising funds for his own defence team, which includes Amal Clooney, who has waived 90 per cent of her fees, he said.
Fahmy and his Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed begin their retrial on Monday, after an appeals court threw out the case that opened last year and ended in sentencing the two to seven and ten years respectively. Australian journalist Peter Greste, who was originally sentenced to seven years, was released and deported Feb. 1.
Fahmy was released on bail Feb. 12 following more than a year in prison. He said he is preparing for a lengthy legal battle in which his lawyers will question the main investigator in the case, who accused him of being the head of a terror cell that was providing a platform for the Islamists.
He is also going to seek deportation under the same new law that allowed Greste to be deported and spared a retrial.
Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen, was asked to give up his Egyptian nationality by Egyptian officials in order to qualify for deportation. It’s not clear why he was not then deported, but Fahmy said he thinks Canada could have pressed Cairo harder on the matter.
Fahmy, who turned 40 in detention, has meanwhile been forced to postpone his wedding. Without Egyptian citizenship, he must apply to the Justice Ministry to marry his Egyptian fiancee Marwa Omara. Fahmy also has to report to the local police station every day while the trial continues.