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Canada crosses a line on Egypt detentions

For the first time since Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were arrested, Ottawa takes a welcome stand.
Last modified: 26 Feb 2014 03:01

My country, Canada, crossed a line today and that pleases me.

For the first time since the arrest in Egypt last December of my Al Jazeera English colleagues Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, the Canadian government has taken a stand in favour of press freedom in Egypt.

Earlier statements had pledged support for Mohamed Fahmy, my fellow Canadian, and said consular staff in Cairo were providing all necessary help to him and his family from Montreal.

Mohamed's brother, Adel, told me that Canadian ambassador, David Drake, was particularly helpful.

But those comments from Ottawa were brief - almost terse - and they stood in stark contrast to stirring words from other countries.

How about Jay Carney, US White House spokesman, earlier this month who said: "Drop the charges and release journalists and academics who've been detained."

Or this from William Hague, British foreign secretary, who said Egypt must "demonstrate its commitment to full freedom of expression ... and for journalists to work without fear of persecution".

So perhaps a little late, but Canada's contribution to this chorus is  welcome.

Emailed statement

Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, said the following in an emailed statement: "Canada stands with the Egyptian government and people in their efforts to build a stable, inclusive, prosperous and democratic Egypt based on respect for human rights, tolerance, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.

"In keeping with Egypt's new constitution, Canada continues to call on the Egyptian Government to protect and promote the rights of journalists, and the aspiration of all Egyptians to build a fully democratic country."

Villeneuve also outlined how Canadian diplomats are working with their Egyptian counterparts and lawyers to help the Fahmy family.

Well before their government,  Canadian journalists and human rights activists have been speaking out for Mohamed Fahmy and for fundamental freedoms in Egypt.

Michael Cooke, the editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, was actually angry about events in Cairo when we met him last week.

"These journalists are bona fide.  They're all doing good work, they are not spreading false news," Cooke declared.

"Everyone outside of that clique in Egypt knows that these charges are nonsense."

Canada's most-watched news anchor, Peter Mansbridge of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, spoke of a "chill" for reporters working in Egypt.

"It's not fair," he said. "It's wrong and it has to stop."

Filmmaker John Greyson, himself a prisoner in Egypt for three months last year, said he believed most Egyptians wanted freedom of speech in their country.

"It's the government in Cairo that has to be called to task on this," he said, and urged Canada to be even more forthright in its support for the media in Egypt.

Alan Johnston's account

It all helps.

We know this from talking to others who've been held in prisons and captivity abroad.

Alan Johnston, a friend and BBC journalist kidnapped and held for 114 days in Gaza in 2007, told me that knowing your colleagues and your government are pressing for your release is precious, a source of hope during bleak days in custody.

The Toronto-based group, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), acknowledges today's statement from Ottawa but asks for more to be done.

In a letter sent to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, CFJE urges him to :

- "Speak out decisively and publicly for Mohamed Fahmy's release and for the spurious charges against him to be dropped.

- "Break his silence and condemn the oppressive conditions for press freedom in Egypt, as countless others have done.

- "Urge the Egyptian government to uphold the rights to freedom of expression and assembly that are enshrined in its constitution."

I agree. Over to you, Ottawa.

Sign the petition to free Al Jazeera's staff detained in Egypt. 

Read the joint statement.