Editorial: Failed hope of Arab spring

BEHIND BARS: Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has been imprisoned in Egypt since December 29.
BEHIND BARS: Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has been imprisoned in Egypt since December 29.

The three al-Jazeera journalists in the dock in a Cairo criminal courtroom yesterday appeared genuinely shocked by the guilty verdicts and the stiff prison sentences they received yesterday.

Their shock and grief at this infringement on press freedom and personal liberties has rightly been reflected around the world.

The military regime in control in Egypt now has shown repeatedly that it has little regard for the rule of law or freedom of speech and pays no heed to any outside calls to show more respect to those fundamental democratic freedoms.

Because some of the defendants were western journalists (several of them wisely in absentia) the case has attracted wider attention than most, but the regime has committed other far greater outrages against justice and will no doubt continue to do so.

The defendants yesterday included Peter Greste, a highly regarded Australian-born journalist who has also worked for the BBC and whose reports have frequently been heard on Radio New Zealand's Morning Report.

When he and a number of colleagues were arrested at an up-market Cairo hotel, they were detained for several months before being charged with broadcasting false news, aiding a terrorist organisation and endangering Egyptian national security.

The charges were serious and ominous.

The trial to which they were subjected was by all accounts a solemn farce. In the case of Greste, video was played of reporting he had done from east Africa which had no relevance to the charges.

The regime has contrived far worse judicial travesties in recent months, however.

In at least two recent cases, hundreds of protesters were put before the court simultaneously and after a trial (if that is the word) lasting 48 hours sentenced to death.

Given the political climate into which they were travelling, the journalists were working in a risky environment.

While their integrity is not in doubt, their television station al-Jazeera is financed by (though independent from) the Gulf state of Qatar, a supporter of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, the party toppled by the current Egyptian leaders.

The Arabic-language service of al-Jazeera had been banned in Egypt and the regime was already clearly brutally intolerant of anything that might question its threadbare legitimacy.

It is now likely the journalists will have to languish in prison while they run through whatever appeals are available.

Those will no doubt fail but they can hope that pressure from the United States and others will gain them an eventual pardon from the president.

It is more than others under the regime can expect and it is a long way from the high hopes of the Arab spring of three years ago.

The Press