A fight on two fronts
While the recent release of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy from an Egyptian prison may mean the end of one battle for freedom, another is just beginning—this time, for that of expression.
Fahmy, 41, made his fight for freedom of expression in the media clear Tuesday morning at a press conference held at Ryerson University. The former Al Jazeera bureau chief called for greater protection of press freedom by the Canadian government, citing the country’s “democratic atmosphere,” and encouraged the rejection of laws that threaten this freedom everywhere.
“If we [Canadians] believe in a free press…we need to defend it,” Fahmy said. “We must fight against such [restrictive] laws, wherever they are.”
The conference, hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, was Fahmy’s first public appearance in Canada since his arrest for broadcasting what an Egyptian court called “false news” that promoted the recently outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian police first arrested Fahmy, along with two other reporters also working for the Al Jazeera English television network, in December 2013. All three faced terror-related charges for airing material believed to threaten the country’s security.
After a trial and retrial process that lasted nearly two years, an Egyptian court settled on a three-year sentence for Fahmy in August—this was after he had already spent over 400 days in a Cairo maximum security prison. The Egyptian native described his cell as covered in bugs and without access to sunlight. He was also nursing a fractured shoulder at the time.
But what made matters worse was that, in Fahmy’s eyes, no crime had been committed in the first place.
The journalist said he was wrongfully imprisoned for expressing the news. What he believed was accurate, unbiased reporting was instead seen as a threat to the government and ultimately resulted in his imprisonment.
Though Fahmy was eventually pardoned of all charges by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Sept. 23 and released from prison later that day, his case raised many questions about the balancing of different rights.
The Egyptian government held that its right to limit press freedom for the maintenance of what it viewed as public security should be given priority. But for Fahmy, power should ultimately lie with the journalist.
“No government should be permitted to restrict press freedom to serve its own political agenda,” he said.
It is evident that Fahmy was taking a page from Canada’s more democratic laws, specifically Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to freedom of the press to all Canadians.
Despite this guarantee in legislation, the Canadian government failed to come to Fahmy’s aid once this right had been threatened by the Egyptian government. And for the journalist, this was the biggest disappointment of all.
According to Fahmy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper failed to realize the urgency of his case and should have done more to intervene.
“You want to know your government is fully behind you,” he said. “It was hard not to feel betrayed and abandoned [by Harper].”
Fahmy, joined by his wife and legal team on a panel, said the prime minister refused to speak with his international lawyer, Amal Clooney, as well as Canadian lawyers about the case.
Even after receiving an open letter with the signatures of about 300 Canadians, all requesting that the prime minister intervene, Harper instead referred the case to lower-ranking government officials who were not able to help.
A Toronto Star article cited that Harper did, however, get in touch with the Egyptian president. Fahmy said if that was the case, he is “thankful,” but would have liked to see more disclosure. The journalist insisted on greater leader-to-leader communication following these kinds of arrests, and that officials be more transparent about their efforts.
“The Canadian government should start implementing a more open approach rather than quiet diplomacy,” he said.
Fahmy also blasted former foreign affairs minister John Baird for his assurance at a press conference that the journalist would not be put on trial in Canada should he be deported. Since Egyptian officials wanted this as a deportation condition, any chance Fahmy had of being released at the time was virtually ruined.
Along with his criticism of the Canadian government, Fahmy also discussed a lawsuit he launched against former employer Al Jazeera, citing improper and dangerous journalistic practices.
At his retrial, it was discovered that Fahmy and his colleagues had been working with an expired broadcasting license, even after being assured multiple times beforehand that it was valid.
“There can be no doubt that Al Jazeera endangered me and my team on the ground,” Fahmy said.
As a result, the journalist launched a $100-million lawsuit against the network.
“No news network should be permitted to compromise journalistic ethics or the safety of its journalists,” he said.
Despite the lack of support from his government and employer at the time, Fahmy said he was blown away by the encouragement received from regular citizens.
The journalist believed he was back in Canada thanks to the efforts of Canadians across the country, from those who simply tweeted to those who wrote articles advocating for his return. He repeatedly thanked Canadians for their support and called it “unprecedented.”
“If you ever doubt that these campaigns make a difference, I’m living proof that they do,” Fahmy said.
He also thanked organizations like CJFE for contributing to his cause by helping pay for legal fees, and said that “now, [these groups] have inspired me.”
Fahmy recently launched a foundation that will campaign for the release of and provide financial aid to other imprisoned journalists with cases similar to his. He listed a number of reporters currently behind bars in the Middle East, including Vice magazine’s Mohammed Ismael Rasool. These people are often innocent, Fahmy said, facing charges of terror simply for accurate reporting.
“I’d like to turn the spotlight on these people,” he said, “and bring a personal approach to what they’re going though.”
Fahmy also called on the Egyptian government to not only pardon more of these journalists, but to “revisit [its] laws and differentiate between terrorists and reporters.”
While he does intend to visit the Middle East again, Fahmy said he will continue to advocate for the protection and release of imprisoned journalists from Vancouver for now, having recently accepted a teaching position at the University of British Columbia.
In the mean time, the journalist said, he hopes that others learn from his experience and continue to fight for freedom.
“There’s an unprecedented wave of terrorism,” Fahmy said. “But that doesn’t mean the so-called ‘war on terror’ will be used to clamp on our civil liberties.”