Canada joins call to #FreeAJStaff
Journalists and media pressure groups in Canada have joined the international campaign pressing Egypt to release jailed Al Jazeera staff immediately.
"Journalism is not terrorism," says Tom Henheffer of the Toronto-based pressure group, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, at a news conference in Toronto on Thursday, co-hosted by his organisation and Al Jazeera.
Henheffer is referring to terror and other charges laid against Al Jazeera English journalists Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian, Egyptian Bahel Mohamed, and Peter Greste of Australia. Egyptian national Abdullah al-Shami of the Al Jazeera Arabic channel is also in custody, held without charge since July of last year.
Fahmy, Greste and Mohamed were arrested on December 29th at Cairo's Marriot Hotel. Al Jazeera denies all charges and says all they were doing were their jobs as journalists.
Speaking in Toronto, Owen Watson, an executive producer at Al Jazeera English, spoke of what his colleagues were facing in jail in Egypt.
"They've had to cope with particularly appalling conditions," he says. "They've been held in cells with no access to light, little food or water, cells infested with insects, all the while being forced to sleep on floors without blankets or pillows."
While jail life may have improved somewhat for Mohamed and Fahmy after prison authorities moved them this week into a better cell, Watson said this was far from enough.
"We want the release of our journalists," he says. "There's no compromise on this."
Canada's leading national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, sent its editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse, to the news conference. Egypt, he said, was targeting journalists to stifle opposition and free speech.
"We will not be silenced," Stackhouse says. "This is unacceptable to all of us, around the world, as journalists."
That was a common theme that united normally competing media outlets, sitting together to call for the freeing of the Al Jazeera journalists. From the Toronto Star newspaper, national security reporter Michelle Shephard said her work often brought her into contact with misuse of criminal charges to stifle media and other rights.
"We know these charges are ludicrous, but I know from covering terrorism, much of what we cover is the use of accusations of terror, often to stifle press freedom," she says.
One of the more poignant speakers was journalist David Enders, who has worked with Fahmy in Cairo and considers him a close friend.
"He's an exceptional journalist," Enders says, "and countless times he's proved his bravery and his humanity. We're hoping he's out very soon. He has a family who misses him very very much."
Another participant who knows only too well the plight of jailed Al Jazeera staff was Toronto filmmaker John Greyson.
Last August, he was arrested in Egypt along with another Canadian, Dr Tarek Loubani. The pair were caught in a clash in a Cairo suburb and had begun filming and helping the injured.
Several weeks into their 50 days of captivity, Greyson and Loubani heard from Canadian diplomats about the growing international campaign to have them released. As a filmmaker, he also had prominent supporters in Hollywood.
"The difference that made - not just for us but bringing that word back to our cellmates - was extraordinary, the fact that petitions were being signed by [movie stars] Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron," Greyson remembers, smiling.
"Our cellmates said 'who?' … But they were impressed by Robert De Niro. so that helped."
Apparently that campaign also convinced the Canadian government to finally go public with calls to free Greyson and Loubani from both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister, John Baird. So far, no such explicit Canadian support has been offered to Fahmy, who was raised in Montreal and remains a Canadian citizen.
"In Mohamed's case, the Canadian government has done so little, as we've heard - merely repeating platitudes about consular services," Greyson says.
"Mohamed deserves the same response from our government that our case received: demanding that charges be dismissed and that he and the others be released now."
The event ended with all ten participants holding up signs with the hashtag #FreeAJStaff, so their images could join the thousands of others in similar poses going viral on social media around the world – all hoping to help free Al Jazeera journalists and bring freedom of the press to Egypt.