An Egyptian court will conclude one of Egypt’s most hotly debated cases since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, and one of the longest trials the country has recently witnessed: the infamous “Al Jazeera case”.
Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed await the Cairo Criminal Court’s final verdict on accusations of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, spreading false information on Egypt’s national security, and promoting terrorism, through their work as journalists at the Qatari channel.
“Will justice be served this Thursday? We must keep shouting,” Greste posted on his Twitter account as the day approached.
Baher Mohamed spoke to Daily News Egypt one day before the trial as they reflected on the case and their jailing for 411 days.
What was your strategy to overcome what you have been through?
At the very beginning, I was always thinking that this was just a matter of a few days, and then everything would be over. Every time we would see the prosecutor, he would tell us there was nothing against us and we would soon be released. We kept hearing this day after day after day. But after what happened in trial, I realised I was doing this for a cause. I decided to live day-by-day, because when you keep dreaming for things that don’t happen, it really hurts, especially when any sentence could be issue anytime at any cost. I was disappointed a lot, but then dropped all expectations. All what was ongoing and the accusations were about press freedom, which is a big cause I have to stand for. This opportunity comes once a lifetime; I decided to enjoy it.
When did you feel most scared?
The moment I received the verdict. I was very anxious, worried, depressed. My wife was pregnant, I started thinking, and this was a mistake, that if I spent 10 years in prison, my children would be teenagers when I come out. Also, my father’s sick, I thought he might die. This was extremely hard, especially that we were not allowed visits. Those thoughts killed me.
The trial caused some separation of the three defendants in the case. Do you see this case as one, or expect each of you to be individually judged?
Again, I am not expecting anything. Fahmy, Greste and I did not do anything wrong. Whether the judge deals with us as a group of three journalists, or individually, we didn’t commit crimes. We were just practicing our jobs as professional journalists.
How do you feel regarding your profession. Do you reflect back on accomplishments, or proud moments in your career?
I love my profession, and my main concern at the moment is other detained journalists around the world, not just Egypt. I know this could sound odd, but I am really proud of the whole experience. What I saw from the journalism community all over the world, standing side-by-side and calling for press freedom was an amazing endorsement from people I did not personally know. This led me to speak out about others behind bars. I want to do something for them, but I am not sure how, as I am not an activist. The massive support we received was for press freedom, and I want this to continue. Hopefully, when my case is over tomorrow, I want to continue down that path, possibly create large support groups, whether in Egypt or the rest of the world, as targeting journalists has become a serious global issue.
How do you view calls for press freedom worldwide, amidst unprofessional, controlled or terrorism-supporting media content?
First, I think that the idea of state-run media is gone. Media is a watchdog; it should not be on somebody’s favour. Professional journalists collect information and bring facts to the audience, to show them what is happening, and the receivers form their own opinion. This is media, which should remain independent and objective, balanced and representative of different opinions, and revealing the truth in that manner is the way to face ‘terrorist content’.
What is your current relationship with Al Jazeera?
I would say normal. They did not do anything special for me, they did what any other company would do with their employees. For me, I really appreciate the principle of the people’s right to know. So when I go to the field, I prefer to take more risks getting more information and exclusive content. This is how I deal with journalism. I have my press card but I don’t worry about licences, it is not my job.
In the future, would you carefully choose where to work according to the political situation?
I would rather not politicise anything, including my case. Egypt is my country, which I adore and would never abandon, and it has nothing to do with the politics between my nation and Qatar. What happened was not our mistake and media should not be categorised this way. Labelling journalists according to the affiliations of workplace is wrong. When I search for a job, I look at the media institution’s professional background, integrity and reputation, this is what matters.
How did the law allowing the deportation of foreigners affect you? In a previous interview with your wife, she even thought of “seeking a non-Egyptian citizenship”, to help you out?
Keep in mind that Jihan is a mother, alone with three children. She gave birth while I was away, it was hard for her on the emotional level as well. She really did a wonderful job taking care of my family. I can never return the favour to her. But for me, I love my country. I am proud of my history and culture. We Egyptians have this tendency to criticise our state and blabber about negative aspects, but as soon as we feel attacked by non-Egyptians, we automatically take a stance defending our country.
If you had a dual citizenship, would you have used it?
I do not know, but I don’t think so. On the other hand, neither I nor anybody in the world could blame Mohamed Fahmy for what he did, because his situation was extremely difficult, suffering health problems and in need of an operation. It was not right from the beginning to force him to choose between his nationality and his freedom. And even if he had a free choice and opted for giving up his citizenship, you cannot ask him not to in exchange of not being in jail. This has nothing to do with patriotism.
Did you meet interesting people in prison?
Of course. In fact, I met public figures I had hoped to interview and got a chance to speak to them face-to-face. I also met many former officials; I might write an interesting book about it. Other than that, I learned to enjoy what I have. For instance, I was crafting things for my wife’s birthday in prison. I used to run with Peter. The three of us wrote “Freedom now” on the walls inside, using stickers of mineral water bottles. We kept our minds in peace instead of getting dark thoughts which hurt. But I do not want to go back again.
How was it dealing with your children, especially as they were aware something has happened?
Unfortunately, I was lying to them and told them I was at work. My eldest, Hazem, visited me once in prison, and I remember he kept shouting anti-police slogans. My children used to wake up at night to check on me if I was home or not, or cry now if they see me heading out of the house, fearing I would not return. Those very young kids are praying for their father’s innocence. I am trying hard to make them forget what happened.