This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Marwa Hassan
“What does freedom mean to me?”
This is a question that, unfortunately, doesn’t often surface in our inner monologues during a regular day. Many of us rarely stop and think about whether we have the right to voice our opinions or whether we’re allowed to go about our daily routines without the fear of being assaulted, incarcerated or worse. Many of us take freedom of speech for granted as a basic human right that is afforded to all. However, we must always keep in mind that the concept of free speech is not as simple as it seems.
On December 29th, 2013, three Al-Jazeera English journalists – Australian foreign correspondent Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian producer Mohamed Fahmy, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed – were working in a Marriot Hotel room in Cairo, Egypt. They had their reporting equipment scattered about the room as they produced and edited news stories, articles, and videos covering the aftermath of the July ousting of Mohamed Morsi. At some point during this seemingly benign portion of a journalist’s day, the Egyptian police raided the hotel room and arrested the three men. They were charged with spreading fabricated news reports in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose activities have been banned from Egypt since Morsi’s ousting and the following inauguration of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
In spite of their incessant denial of the accusations, the journalists were apprehended and held in custody in one of Egypt’s detention facilities. As soon as the Al-Jazeera Network was notified of the arrest, it denied the charges against its employees and urged for their immediate release. Their efforts, however, were to no avail.
Unsurprisingly, countless journalists – professional, amateur, you name it – around the world responded with an outcry. After about two months of detainment and no foreseeable pardon on Egypt’s part, Al-Jazeera started a global Twitter campaign known as the #FreeAJStaff featuring images of journalists and supporters with tape covering their mouths and holding signs that read a simple yet powerful message: JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME.
One particular video that spread across different platforms also invited viewers to share a simple thought – “Imagine a world where reality is distorted, imagine being kept in the dark about major global events, imagine being silenced when speaking out could save your life. You’ve just imagined a world where journalists are not free to report the facts.” How very chillingly 1984 speak.
Despite the ongoing protests, demonstrations and petitions, the next couple of months did not see the journalists acquitted. Instead, on June 23rd, 2014 – around 177 days after their arrest – both Greste and Fahmy received a sentence of seven years in jail, while Mohamed received an additional three years for reportedly carrying a used bullet in his pocket. According to Al-Jazeera, the evidence was declared as possession of ammunition by the Egyptian court. In addition to the three’s sentences, other Al-Jazeera journalists were tried in absentia and have received sentences of up to ten years.
To further twist the pretzel, BBC News reports that the entire ordeal has to do with Egypt’s supposed “political battle” with Al-Jazeera’s home of Qatar – a country that “has supported the Brotherhood and is unpopular with Egypt’s government.” Both White House spokesman John Earnest and United Nations rights chief Navi Pillay voiced their disapproval of the alleged politically motivated charges and continue to urge the Egyptian government to release the journalists.
On August 1st, 2014, Canada’s National Post published a letter written by Egyptian-Canadian Fahmy that disclosed his uncertainty about whether or not he will decide to appeal the guilty verdict to the same court that issued the verdict in the first place. Al-Jazeera reports that Australian Greste’s family has already appealed his sentence.
As viewers continue to look out for fresh headlines, hope remains for the truth to be revealed and for the reestablishment of a safe, democratic, universal space for journalists to do what many strive to do: speak up, speak out.
Open communication is exactly what an alternative magazine thrives on – an honest, impassioned expression of a thought, a belief, a concern, a question, a joy, a fear or better yet, the simultaneous eruption of all six – and then some. Maybe you’re nostalgic and the tips of your fingers still tingle when you remember how high you threw your graduation cap. Maybe you’re constantly replaying words of encouragement from your favorite English teacher. Maybe you’re just wondering how the hell you’re going to get through the week without a friendly face by your side. Let us assure you that you’re truly neither the first nor the last person to feel any of the above. Let me also promise you that these are only the first few inches of the seemingly endless string of maybes you’re going to encounter everywhere, especially within yourself. The good news is the environment you’re stepping into here at Western is one that will do as much as possible to help you learn, belong, engage and above all, express freely.
What does freedom mean to you? Go on, take the red pill.