Britain should not let Egypt get away with jailing Peter Greste and the Al Jazeera Three

[ooyala id=”ZueTZmbjqJs6uFeUPBqMY-lZKDpkyMia” ]

I write this blog post from Baghdad, where typing away on a laptop has always been by far the easiest part of the working day. Other aspects of reporting here can be fairly tough: not just the risk of kidnappers, car-bombers and al-Qaeda militants, but of hassle from the increasingly nervous Iraqi security forces.

Only last night, a photographer colleague told me how cops held him at gunpoint when he took pictures at the scene of a car-bombing, despite having the relevant official press permit. Security men from no less than three different ministries all wanted to arrest him, until he called a senior official who smoothed things over.

Still, life as a reporter can be a lot worse in the Arab world. As I type, my journalist colleague Peter Greste, ex of BBC and now of Al Jazeera, is waking up to the first day of a seven-year prison sentence in a jail in Egypt, where he and two colleagues were accused of terrorist-related offences.

For those who haven’t followed it, the background to Greste et al’s “terrorism” charges is that they were accused of having illegal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood formed the democratically elected government in Egypt until last year’s coup by the military, which then promptly declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

You might, therefore, think it entirely legitimate for a visiting foreign correspondent to seek out the Brotherhood opinion on all this. But the Egyptian government clearly has other ideas.

Cynics may detect a bias here, a certain assumption on my behalf that Mr Greste is innocent. Frankly, though, I think he is. True, I don’t know him very well, other than once phoning him for some help on a story a couple of years ago, when he was very obliging.

But whatever criticisms some Telegraph readers might have of the BBC, its former staff are not generally known for getting involved in terrorism. And in taking sides on this one, I am in good company. Our own David Cameron has branded the case “appalling”, while William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has summoned the Egyptian ambassador in London to register his concern.

[ooyala id=”FsODZmbjpCtgtYEEX6vktpmiuHyFt3Sf” ]

However, that seems to be about it as far as HMG is concerned. Other than giving Cairo’s man in London a headmasterly ticking off – the exact words of which we are never told – it seems like it will be business as usual. There will be no other real penalties on Egypt, such as banning senior officials in the new military regime from coming over to the UK for visits (and shopping trips).

Instead, it seems, the country’s government will be allowed to slide back into its old Mubarak-era ways, where the only price they pay for stifling a free press is the odd lecture every now and again from people like Mr Hague. I can just imagine what goes through the Egyptian ambassador’s mind as Hague drones on: “Get on with it, sir, then we can talk trade again. After all, we all know that that’s more important than human rights…”

I’m aware that this all sounds rather idealistic, and that as a foreign correspondent, I should know that diplomacy is a lot more complicated than this. Maybe it is. Maybe there are “behind-the-scenes” issues I know nothing about – something our Foreign Office is very good at hinting at when it doesn’t want to do anything.

But if Britain isn’t going to make a strong stand on cases like this, then when will it do? It is, after all, a pretty open-and-shut case of human rights abuse – a journalist jailed for attempting to do his job. And it comes on top of a vast catalogue of other human rights abuses in post-Mubarak Egypt, none of which seem to have been stopped by the Foreign Office’s little private chats with the ambassador.

Nor is this special pleading on behalf of fellow reporters. Yes, there are lots of other Westerners languishing in foreign jails around the world, some of whom have suffered equal miscarriages of justice. But the fact is that we hacks can make good test cases.

We aren’t there as businessmen, diplomats or NGO workers, so we have no particular agenda to cloud the issues. But we are still carrying out an important function in any country that aspires towards democracy, which makes us as good a cause célèbre as any. Yes, we can be irritating sometimes, not to mention self-important and sometimes inaccurate.

Heaven forbid, sometimes we operate without all our permits in order, which seems to be one of the charges laid against Mr Greste. But that’s part of the point. Tolerating us, for better or worse, is a good test of a country’s democratic commitment.

More importantly, just as Greste should be an important test case, so too is Egypt. This is, after all, a country whose citizens made great sacrifices to topple a dictator two years ago, and they deserve our support in stopping the slide back to the bad old days. And no, contrary to some opinion, that does not mean siding with the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It should be remembered that the spearhead of Egypt’s 2011 revolution was educated, middle-class Egyptians, some of whom gave their lives to create the kind of country where the likes of Mr Greste might go about his business unmolested. If the West does not make more of a gesture over his imprisonment, it is an insult to their memory – and, of course, encouragement to other Arab states that the old, nasty, ways are still the best.

Get the latest comment and analysis from the Telegraph

Read more from our news and politics bloggers




About the post

Media, World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: