Egypt Targets Journalists In Crackdown On Muslim Brotherhood

Egypt's government has been cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that backed recently deposed president Mohammed Morsi. Last week, the government designated the brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Now, Egypt's top prosecutor has ordered a 15-day detention for several journalists on suspicion of joining the brotherhood, including two producers and a correspondent for Al-Jazeera English, who are accused of "tarnishing Egypt's image abroad." For more on Egypt's beleaguered press freedoms, Audie Cornish talks with Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which found Egypt to be one of the top jailers of journalists in its most recent census.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Egyptian government enters the new year tightening its grip on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the Islamist organization that backed the recently deposed president, Mohammed Morsi. Egypt now brands it a terrorist organization and announces new steps in a crackdown almost daily. This week, Egypt's prosecutor ordered a 15-day detention for several journalists on suspicion of joining the Brotherhood. The order accuses two producers and a correspondent for Al-Jazeera's English language news channel of tarnishing Egypt's image abroad.

Sherif Mansour joins me now to talk about the case. He's with the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that promotes the freedom of the press around the world. Thank you for coming in.

SHERIF MANSOUR: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, the government released an Egyptian cameraman. But it's still holding Al-Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed, along with a correspondent, Peter Greste. Now, why does the government suspect they were working for the Muslim Brotherhood?

MANSOUR: I don't actually believe that the government suspect that they are Muslim Brotherhood. I think that they just are trying to prevent any critical or independent coverage for the event in Egypt. And so far, what we've seen is the Egyptian government are accusing them of doing their work, basically meeting with Muslim Brotherhood people as sources for their materials and possessing, like, media coverage materials. And we think that this is an attempt to criminalize journalism in Egypt that's not approved by the authority.

CORNISH: Al-Jazeera has a long history with the Egyptian government, right?

MANSOUR: Mm-hmm.

CORNISH: And troubled history. Describe how that's played out since Arab Spring protests of 2011.

MANSOUR: Well, Al-Jazeera overall since establishment have been a venue for a lot of the dissident voices, opposition voices that the Egyptian government has managed to cast Al-Jazeera as a foreign agent, because they are funded by the Qatari government who was close to the former President Mohamed Morsi administration, and also gave a lot of aid in investment to support his government. So, in a way, they managed to make this a national crime campaign.

CORNISH: And by that they, you mean the Egyptian government. Essentially because Al-Jazeera is owned by the emir of Qatar, obviously a backer of the ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, you're saying it's become connected to the larger politics.

MANSOUR: Of course, and with the divide that took place and started during President Morsi, a lot of the local homegrown channels were very critical of Mohamed Morsi. And Morsi took a style, attitude toward the press and towards the station, and publicly accuse them of inciting violence which started the divide in the Egyptian media and also a divide between those who support the army and those who support the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi

And that divide was further escalated when the army intervened and ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July, causing this to become a political fight and also destroying any potential for Egyptian journalists to express solidarity with one another.

CORNISH: Can you put some of this in context for us? Aside from Al-Jazeera, Egypt is on your list of top jailers of journalists. What are the numbers there? What are the other countries that act similarly? And what does this tell us about the freedom of the press to operate in Egypt?

MANSOUR: Well, last year in 2013, there was a lot of precedents in Egypt that the end of the year there were at least five who've been held without charges by the Egyptian government. In addition, there were six cases of journalists being killed while doing their work throughout the year. And that made Egypt number three globally in terms of how many journalists were killed. And this is an unprecedented number, that we found out that 10 journalists have died in Egypt since 1992, six of them died last year in 2013.

So overall that means there is a lot more hostility towards the press. Egypt is not the only country who is seeing a lot of deterioration. Across the region, Syria remains the most dangerous environment for journalists. Last year in 2013, there were 29 killed. In addition, of course, across the region, Turkey and Iran remain the top two jailers of journalists around the world, which makes the Middle East a very hostile environment for freedom of the press overall.

CORNISH: That's Sherif Mansour. He's the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MANSOUR: Thank you for having me.

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