With Egyptian Press On Trial, Space For Dissent Is In Question

Thursday marks the opening day of a Cairo trial for Al-Jazeera journalists, who have been jailed on terrorism charges. The case is a sign of the dangerous conditions for the press in Egypt.

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Now, to Cairo, where the spotlight is on an important case in the government's crackdown on press freedoms. Three jailed journalists for the al-Jazeera English channel were taken to their first court hearing today. Their arrest, nearly two months ago, has been denounced by rights groups. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports, they were denied bail today in a short but dramatic appearance.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Outside Tora prison in suburban Cairo, Adel Fahmy's face is drawn. He and his family were barred from attending the trial of his brother, Mohamed Fahmy, inside a makeshift courtroom in the prison.

ADEL FAHMY: Extremely frustrated. Mohamed needed to see us today by his side, you know?

FADEL: Inside the prison courtroom, Fahmy was held in a cage with his two colleagues and co-defendants, Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian camera man Baher Mohamed. The journalists are accused of colluding with or being terrorists, charges human rights groups say are effectively criminalizing journalism in Egypt.

There are 20 defendants in the case. Eight are detained, including five non-journalists who complained of being beaten or burned with lit cigarettes in jail. The only family member allowed inside the hearing when the police opened the gates for journalists and lawyers was Andrew Greste, Peter's brother. In the court, Fahmy yelled from his cage that he loves his fiance and wants a big wedding. Baher Mohamed asked for someone to tell his pregnant wife to rest and Greste said, justice is to happen. We'll be free soon.

Peter Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed have been in prison for more than 50 days and while there has been an international outcry, the case has received little public sympathy in Egypt. The al-Jazeera network is a collection of channels which includes al-Jazeera English and is funded by the Persian Gulf state Qatar.

And these days, Qatar is a dirty word in Egypt. It supported the now ousted and banned Muslim Brotherhood and has been critical of the new government. Egypt accuses al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood. Heather Allan is the head of news gathering at al-Jazeera English. She was outside the prison today. She says the journalists arrested were just doing their jobs.

HEATHER ALLAN: At the end of the day, there's a lot of journalists in jail here, and it has gotten more and more difficult. And to sort of hold Jazeera up as being the great Satan is really disingenuous. You might not agree with our sister channels, but all they are, are a differing voice.

FADEL: The night before the trial, I meet Assem Mohamed, the brother of one of the al-Jazeera journalists, Baher Mohamed, in a Cairo cafe. Assem Mohamed shows me pictures of his brother Baher and his two young children; a picture of Baher's dog, Gatsby, who was shot when police raided their home. His brother is innocent, he says. He's a journalist.

Then he hands me a three-page letter, written by his brother with a smuggled pen. So his letter says: My dear children Hazem, Fayrouz and my unborn child. I miss you like the desert misses the rain. Here in my cell with no watches, books or writing material, my thoughts always turn to you. I know that writing and smuggling this letter out risks being punished for it.

But for now, Mohamed, Greste and Fahmy are back in jail awaiting another court date, on March 5.

Leila Fadel, NPR News.

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