The trial in Egypt of 20 journalists, including nine from Al Jazeera, on charges of allegedly aiding and abetting the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false information about unrest in the country, was adjourned until March. Eight of the journalists have been detained since at least December, and one, Al Jazeera correspondent Peter Greste, penned a letter on the poor conditions at the prison he and others are being held. Al Jazeera reports on Greste and two other detained journalists who are with Al Jazeera English:
Since their arrest, journalists have staged protests worldwide demanding their release, and rejecting claims the three have links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's former ruling party which has since been designated a "terrorist" group.
The case is one of many that have led to criticism of Egypt's military-backed government, with rights groups pointing to growing intolerance for dissent in the Arab world's most populous country.
"Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"The prosecution of these journalists for speaking with Muslim Brotherhood members, coming after the prosecution of protesters and academics, shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating."
Many Egyptians and the pro-government media suspect foreign journalists of unfair coverage of the political upheaval in Egypt, but special anger is reserved for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel that is widely seen as backing the Muslim Brotherhood of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Qatar's rulers support the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's ex-president Mohamed Morsi, and Egypt's interim government has criticized Qatari leaders for giving safe haven to Muslim Brotherhood members.
Voice of America is essentially a broadcast arm of the U.S. government, and has been accused of working against the government or supporting the opposition in places like Cuba and Ethiopia. In 2001, it won an ethics award for running an interview with Mullah Omar which it was pressured not to by the feds, but that was followed up by a restructuring to create VOA outlets that would be easier to manipulate politically, a move opposed by hundreds of VOA journalists.
Journalists at both VOA and Al Jazeera, and at places like the BBC and euronews, as well as at outlets not owned, operated or affiliated with governments, are generally interested in the practice of journalism. The intertwining of the state and the media, however, is detrimental to a free press not just in a place like Egypt, where most media is state owned and the government appears in a total war against a free press, but also when governments, be they the U.S., the U.K. or Qatar, subsidize international media operations. Once the government is involved in media, the involvement will only grow. Even as Voice of America, the BBC, or Al Jazeera remain broadly trusted by their significant viewerships, the governments backing them move to crack down on a free press. The U.S. dropped 13 places in the most recent press freedom rankings, the U.K., like Egypt, is conflating journalism and terrorism, and in Qatar there is little of any free press. It's ranked 133rd on the Reporter Without Borders index that dropped the U.S. to 45th and placed the U.K. at 33rd. Egypt is at 159 out of 180.