The decision by a court in Egypt to jail three Al Jazeera journalists for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and false reporting has provoked outrage from around the world, with thousands of journalists holding a vigil this morning to mark the moment, 24 hours earlier, when the sentences were handed down.
Already the Egyptian press, knowing they could follow Peter Greste, Mohammad Fahmy and Baher Mohamed into the dock at a moment’s notice, have understandably circled the wagons and rejected the criticism of the court’s decision.
This is what journalism looks like in a country where journalists are not free to report the truth, where any report that paints the government in a bad light, no matter how impartial and objective, will result in the journalist being arrested and jailed, and quite possibly tortured in the meantime.
That same BBC Monitoring report also shows that the people of Egypt are not fooled for one second by the theatrics and the rhetoric; the English hashtag #AJTrial was used more than 43,000 time in Egypt on the day of sentencing, most of the tweets criticising the sentence.
Egyptians know that the ‘Al Jazeera Three’ are mere pawns in a much bigger geo-political battle between the Egyptians and the Qataris, whose backing for the once-again-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and its ousted president Mohammed Morsi is well known.
Other hashtags, such as #FreeAJstaff and #journalismisnotacrime, have also been trending throughout the last 24 hours.
One tweet though stood out for me. I didn’t have time to record the details, but it was highlighted in a segment on Al Jazeera English’s Newshour by my former colleague Kamahl Santamaria, who was reporting on the reaction on social media and came out with a wonderful line: “This is what outrage looks like in the digital age” while pointing to a live map showing where the hashtag #AJTrial was being used.
The tweet was from a woman in Uganda who said that she wanted to become a journalist, but after the Egyptian sentence she was now worried about being jailed if she did so.
It was a poignant moment, and again, a potent reminder of precisely what this sentence was designed to do – stifle free speech and free expression.
As a journalist myself and as someone who trains young journalists, my advice to anyone having second thoughts about becoming a journalist is simple: Don’t be scared.
Journalism was born out of the battle for the right to report and express opinions freely, and the list of those who have been imprisoned (or even killed) fighting for or defending this right is long, and for the regimes responsible, shameful.
But to stay silent is to let those regimes win, and with more and more people now able to have their say via social media, the need for trained journalists who can inquire, verify, filter and determine the truth is greater than ever, especially with those regimes using the internet themselves to try and stifle free speech as well.
As Al Jazeera said when they were attacked for reporting the truth in the Iraq War in 2003: