The Egyptian prosecutor who has brought us before the court in Cairo really isn’t so different from the three of us on trial. In essence he, like a journalist, is an investigator trying to get to the truth of the matter, uncovering the facts and relaying them in a coherent narrative so that his audience can understand what is really going on.
Both of us have a heavy legal and moral responsibility to get the story right, and for both, the consequences of getting it wrong can be devastating. That’s why it was so startling to see the tale he wove at the latest hearing in a Cairo court on Monday.
We were originally convicted and sentenced to between seven and 10 years’ hard labor in our first trial that was universally condemned as a travesty of justice. The appeals court later described the verdict as “flawed” and “contradictory,” overturned the convictions, and ordered a retrial.
According to the prosecutor, we doctored footage of unrest in Egypt, and added sound effects to make the country appear as though it was in a state of crisis. The central theme of his story is that we had formed a secret cell, working essentially as propagandists for the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to undermine and destabilize the country.
The narrative is largely unchanged from the first trial despite a startling lack of evidence that we had been doing anything criminal, or even unethical.
In principle, we needn’t be concerned. After all, our work is, by definition, a matter of public record. In this digital age, with countless competing traditional and new media sources, it is almost impossible to get away with making up the news for longer than a few hours, and certainly not with a story as thoroughly covered as the Egyptian political crisis that was unfolding when we were arrested around the end of 2013.
Yet nobody other than the prosecutor has seriously challenged the legitimacy of our work.
After our first trial and conviction, hundreds of our professional colleagues — including some of our fiercest rivals — taped up their lips and held #FreeAJStaff signs in solidarity with our cause.
Millions of people around the world joined the social media campaign (The hashtag #FreeAJStaff received almost three billion impressions); and political figures up to and including U.S. President Barack Obama himself spoke out against what was universally regarded as an attack on freedom of the press.
It is vital that the court gets it right this time, not only because of the consequences for all those caught up in the case, but for Egypt as a whole, and the wider principles that our case came to represent.
That’s why I want to do all I can to defend myself and my colleagues, and also help the court get to the truth of the matter.
That’s not easy though, not least because I am not there. Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deported me in February this year, creating an awkward legal conundrum: how do I obey the judge’s demand that I appear in court; without violating the executive order that kicked me out of the country in the first place?
Breaking new ground
This is not a trivial problem. Under Egypt’s rules, if I do not appear I will be formally declared as on trial in absentia, and so be convicted by default, regardless of the evidence — or in this case the lack of evidence — against us. As a way of solving that problem, I am offering to appear by video link.
There is no indication that the authorities are willing to go with the idea — it has never been done before in Egypt, so it would mean breaking new ground — and we have not yet had any formal response. But if the first principle of any legal system is to get to the truth of the matter, then they must surely be willing to consider anything that helps uncover the story about the facts.
As any investigator knows, there are two ways of approaching any given situation: either marshal the facts and hope that they point to a particular narrative; or come with a pre-conceived theory, and see if the facts support it.
The risk inherent in the second approach is the tendency to choose whatever bits of information seem to confirm the theory, and bin the inconvenient bits that don’t.
If the court falls into that trap, it will kill the already badly damaged relationship between Egypt’s government and the press, and further harm the country’s international relationship.
And that would be in nobody’s interests.