Egypt: journalists in court on 'absurd' terrorism charges

Al Jazeera accused of being a 'mouthpiece of Islamists' as terrorism trial gets underway

LAST UPDATED AT 14:08 ON Thu 20 Feb 2014

TWENTY journalists, nine of them from Al Jazeera, have gone on trial in Cairo today accused of terrorist offences.

They are charged variously with belonging to a terrorist organisation, harming national unity and social peace, and spreading false news. If convicted, they could face prison sentences of up to 15 years.

Former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, now an Al Jazeera reporter, is among those in court.

The charges are linked to the journalists’ reporting of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was declared a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government in December last year.

Al Jazeera called the allegations "absurd, baseless and false" and described the government’s actions as a crackdown on freedom of speech. All defendants have pleaded not guilty.

A social media campaign launched by the Qatar-based network has encouraged people to tweet using the hastag #FreeAJstaff and the slogan “journalism is not terrorism”.

Several news networks, including the BBC, NBC, ABC, Reuters, ITN and Sky News have written an open letter to the Egyptian authorities calling for the immediate release of the journalists.

The arrests and trial have also been condemned by the White House, which has accused Egypt of contravening human rights and freedom of the press.

Commentators have said that it is “no coincidence” that many of the journalists arrested work for Al Jazeera, a network often described by Egyptian officials as the “mouthpiece of Islamists” and “the media wing of an enemy state”.

Al Jazeera rejects the accusation of bias. "The charges just don't hold water," says Heather Allan, head of newsgathering for Al Jazeera English. "Egypt is a very important story for us. We've always been there, we believe we have been very fair.”

The trial has been adjourned until March 5. · 

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