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Free Speech Forever: Ex-Al Jazeera Bureau Chief Mohamed Fahmy

Mohamed Fahmy is an Egyptian-Canadian award-winning journalist and author. He covered the war in Iraq from day one for the Los Angeles Times. He reported for The New York Times, Dubai TV, and BBC in the Middle East and North Africa.  He covered the Arab Spring as a correspondent and producer for CNN. In September 2013, he accepted a new post as the Al Jazeera English Egypt bureau chief. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Arrest, Trial and imprisonment:

On December 29 2013, Egypt arrested Fahmy, along with fellow Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste (Australian) and Baher Mohamed (Egyptian), accusing them of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization because of their work for Al Jazeera.

On June 23 2014, all three were sentenced. Fahmy received a seven-year sentence; Greste, seven and Mohammed, 10. Fahmy and Mohammed were released on bail in February 2015, while Greste, not an Egyptian citizen, was released and deported back to Australia via Cyprus. Fahmy renounced his Egyptian citizenship that month.   

Left without legal counsel, Fahmy hired international human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney to represent him. She denounced the trial as a show trial in an op-ed for Huffington Post in 2014.

In August 2015, he was retried along with Mohamed and Greste (in absentia). Fahmy and Greste received a lighter sentence of three years, Mohamed got 3.5 years. Fahmy and Mohamed were released a month later following a pardon by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.

Fahmy later announced that he was suing Al Jazeera for $100 million (Canadian/US $72.3 million) for negligence and breach of contract. Fahmy, a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's war on terror, charges that the network's Egyptian affiliate served as a "thinly veiled mouthpiece" for former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as for the Brotherhood itself.

He graciously agreed to talk to Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about his organization the Fahmy Foundation and the work he has been doing to fight for freedom of speech since his release from prison.

 

 

Clarion Project: When and why did you decide to start the Fahmy Foundation?

Mohamed Fahmy: I registered the foundation as a nonprofit NGO when I was in prison during the first quarter of 2015 and announced it when I was out on bail for six months before I was sentenced again to three years and thrown back into prison for 27 days. I was pardoned in September 2015.  

During my ordeal, I received donations from private citizens, NGOS and started a successful crowd-funding campaign, which helped pay my legal fees at a crucial time when Al Jazeera refused to pay for my lawyers. These donations put a real smile on my face and saved me.

The millions of people who advocated, Tweeted, rallied and championed press freedom is partially why I am a free man today.

I am now giving back, by helping some of the 200 journalists and prisoners of conscience imprisoned worldwide by keeping their plight alive and helping their families in any way I can. 

 

Clarion: How did being imprisoned change your perspective on the need for freedom of speech?

‎Fahmy: I realized that our imprisonment was orchestrated to send a chilling message to journalists not toeing the government's line and toward Qatar and Al Jazeera Arabic for sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thankfully, the press stood up for us.

Being on the other side of the microphone, I realized more than ever how influential journalism could be. The global journalism community protected us and echoed my voice muffled in the darkness of the solitary-confinement cell.  I believe journalists working earnestly should never be jailed and indeed I met dozens of reporters in prison who should not have been there.

Some of them were targeted, for their religious and political beliefs rather than their journalism.

Yet, the global clampdown on journalism and human rights is at its worst. I believe there must be a whole new approach toward protecting reporters and that should happen through newly instated legislations. 

 

 

Clarion: You campaign for a diverse set of people across the MENA region, including Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia and Atena Farghandani in Iran.

Are your campaigns having more traction in some areas than others? If so why do you think that is?

Fahmy: I am building on the contacts, expertise and media coverage I received due to my own imprisonment to raise awareness for other prisoners.

The two-year coverage of my trial in Egypt has captured more attention in Arab nations, so my advocacy campaigns for prisoners in Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi for example receive more traction on social media. I use the platform that comes with my freedom to advocate on many of the Arabic TV and radio shows that host me.

I’ve already spoken about Mahmoud Shawkan, the Egyptian photojournalist unjustly imprisoned for more than two years, on three Egyptian primetime talk shows so far.  I speak about all the people I am fighting for at universities and think tanks and always make sure to encourage others to help them. They are mostly victims of politics gone sour between nations, vague terrorism laws or autocratic governments with no respect for freedom of expression.

 

 

Clarion: What has the Fahmy Foundation’s biggest success been to date?

Fahmy: In the seven months since our soft launch, I have done a lot of behind-the-scenes advocacy.

I met members of the European Parliament, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, U.S. State Department officials, British Foreign Office, and Egyptian officials. I relayed to them the updates of these cases, specifically because I am in regular contact with the families and lawyers of the prisoners I am fighting for and have read the court orders and some of the interrogations and investigations. 

I am excited that I have partnered with the Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression, which is a rooted and influential NGO that has done marvels for my own release and continues to conduct impeccable advocacy work worldwide. Most recently, I established the Journalists in Distress Fund listed on our site and hope to financially support at least 10 journalists detained or risking arrest in 2016. We recently donated $3,000 (Canadian) to an Ethiopian journalist imprisoned on bogus terrorism charges.  

I hope to do more. 

 

Clarion: How can supporters of free speech around the world help to bring it to fruition in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia where censorship has been the norm for so long?

Fahmy: I am a realist. I don't believe there is true free speech in the world but of course some countries worse than others. We have to continue aiming for minor victories toward free-speech reform and hope for the best.

I am hopeful the new parliament in Egypt can spark political discourse to revisit some of laws that have hindered free speech such as clauses in the new anti-terrorism law related to journalism. I think the problem is rooted in the culture of the security apparatus in the Middle East and that could take a long time to alter. 

As for Saudi Arabia, they have become hypersensitive to critique of their human rights record because indeed it’s swirling out of control and we can’t remain silent anymore.

They can start by releasing blogger Raif Badawi serving 10 years and 1,000 lashes and poet Ashraf Fayadh sentenced to death for expressing their religious views in their work. 

 

Clarion: What do you think the impact of free speech in the region would be?

‎Fahmy: Something like the breath of fresh air we only tasted at the outbreak of the Arab Spring in the Middle East. However, some TV networks promoting religious fascism abused it. 

Governments not accustomed to open political discourse, new ideas and the watchdog approach keeping them at check fought it relentlessly.

Free speech would allow the pluralism needed to appease the progressive masses always seeking democracy, transparency, accountability and innovative thinking. It would also keep the leaders we vote for at check and curtail corruption. 

 

Clarion: For speech to be truly free does it require much broader changes to protect people from possible violence such as we see in places like Bangladesh where secularist bloggers are murdered? What changes, if any, do you think would be needed?

Fahmy: For speech to be truly free, both governments and media organizations alike should respect press freedoms. Just as we expect governments to not imprison journalists, networks must also not give voice to terrorists and not sponsor one group over the other.

What is happening in Bangladesh, the hacking and killing of bloggers by Islamist extremists in broad day light is the perfect example of how today we journalists and writers are being targeted by both governments and extremist groups alike leaving us no neutral ground. ‎

I think we desperately need new legislation globally to better protect journalists from prosecution. International laws should be amended to make it a war crime to kill or take journalist hostage as suggested by the CEO of Associated Press in Hong Kong last year. 

 

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