The jarring announcement last Saturday that reporter Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen who worked for the Middle Eastern television network al-Jazeera, was sentenced to three years in an Egyptian prison for, among other things, “spreading false news” is, at the very least, an unhappy comment on the very precarious state of democracy in much of the world.
Mr. Fahmy’s charges under Egyptian law stem from news of protests by the Muslim Brotherhood organization that the reporter broadcast but which criticized the current governing body, led by current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Egypt, of course, has been in a state of chaos for some time. It was in 2010, in Tunisia, when the so-called “Arab Spring” ignited a force that seemed destined to purge much of the Middle East of much of its less desirable and anti-democratic aspects.
In Egypt, the Arab Spring was manifested in a number of rapid changes that began in 2011 with the stepping down of President Mubarak (who was later convicted of ordering the killing of civilian protestors and sentenced to life in prison).
Since 2011, there has been a rapid number of changes at the helm of Egyptian government, including the election of a Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohamed Morsi, as president in 2012.
In 2013, the Egyptian army ousted President Morsi. He too has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for condoning the arrest and torture of protestors when he was in power.
The current president, previously the head of the Egyptian army, came to power in 2014 through an election and the country now bans political parties that are based on religion.
This, then, is the complicated recent political environment in which the Canadian newsman was attempting to give balanced reports, and these included allowing the banned Muslim Brotherhood to have its say.
And this, of course, was what led to the “spreading false news” charges that will see him inside an Egyptian prison for the next three years.
Almost exactly two months ago, an editorial commentary in this space in the July 1 edition of the paper remarked on how Canada and her western allies are so well served by a free press that can operate without concerns for precisely what has befallen the Canadian reporter for the al-Jazeera news service.
Interestingly, an Australian colleague of Mr. Fahmy’s, who faced the same charges, was released from custody and sent home earlier this year. This is what our government and Mr. Fahmy’s Canadian lawyers had also been asking for in his case.
Of course his sentence—for simply doing his job—will be appealed but it is very clear that much of the world, in a high profile way, has no real and official interest in implementing a democracy similar to the one we enjoy in Canada, in Ontario and, to bring things home, also right here on Manitoulin Island.
Mr. Fahmy is being made an example of by the thugs who currently control the levers of power in this large mid-east nation; his sentence is a threat to other foreign national members of the press who may also consider telling more than the official side of the government story.
At home, we are heading for a federal General Election in about six weeks.
No matter what our views may be about particular parties, their leaders and local candidates, in Canada we are free to criticize them all, without fear or favour.
Mr. Fahmy, of course, is only one of a long list of reporters who have been jailed or murdered in that part of the world for simply doing what virtually everyone in our country takes for granted by way of news coverage.
Mr. Fahmy deserves to be brought home to Canada and his pending imprisonment must be at some level a priority for the leaders of all of our national parties to address, each in his or her own way, and to do so in tangible and meaningful ways during the campaign period and, especially, after the October 19 election.