Mohamed Fahmy remembers when it dawned on him that something was not right.
He was in an Egyptian prison.
There was a group of Muslim Brotherhood students in the same jail. “They described how they were involved in organizing protests and filming them, and a lot of their footage was being aired on Al Jazeera and that doesn’t represent citizen journalism.”
He now says he realized his employers had been in contact with these students. “They were dealing fluidly with a group that was banned and later designated as terrorists, and the network kept us journalists in the dark about it. I discovered that in prison.”
Fahmy was born in Cairo in 1974. He reported on the 2003 Iraq War for the Los Angeles Times, spent years covering the Arab Spring and worked for CNN before being hired as Al Jazeera English Egypt bureau chief in September 2013.
He entered the job during momentous times in Egyptian history. Autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak had stepped down in February 2011 when the Arab Spring broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In June 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as president after winning elections. A year later, after millions took to the streets in protest, Morsi was overthrown by the military and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Al Jazeera openly supported not only the Arab Spring in Egypt but also was sympathetic toward the Muslim Brotherhood.
It was targeted for closure by the new Egyptian authorities almost immediately in July 2013. In August its local affiliate station, Mubasher Misra, was banned. On September 23 the Muslim Brotherhood was banned as well. Two months later pro-Sisi protesters outside the Qatari Embassy demanded the government expel the Qataris as well. Al Jazeera is a state-funded broadcaster, and its role in the Middle East during the Arab Spring is viewed suspiciously by many regimes, especially those that think it works with either the opposition or terrorist groups.
This was the complex situation Fahmy came into in September 2013. Speaking by telephone from Canada (he is a Canadian citizen) where he has opened a $100 million lawsuit against his former employer, Fahmy recalls his three months of employment before his arrest. “Before taking the job for the English channel I had clear conditions which included being independent and not sharing content on [the Al Jazeera-owned] Arabic channels specifically.”
He says that the Arabic channel was “clearly biased to the Muslim Brotherhood and had been vilified by the Egyptian government.” He received guarantees that his employers would respect the demarcation.
“But it turned out later on they were nabbing our English content and rebroadcasting and dubbing and running it on illegal channels.”
He says this placed his channel on the radar of the authorities.
“I asked them if we were operating legally from the Marriot [Hotel in Cairo]... they had set up shop in the Marriot and they said we were operating legally but it turned out they were illegal.”
On December 29, 2013, Fahmy, along with Peter Greste and Baher Ghorab, was arrested and accused of conspiring with terrorists and operating without licenses. “We were sent to [Tora] Scorpion Prison hell hole with ISIS members and Muslim Brotherhood and others.”
In 2016 Fahmy published a book called The Marriot Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom about his experience. It was during the Scorpion Prison days he became aware of the Brotherhood student activists he says were sending material to Al Jazeera. His case was “bundled” together with that of the students and no matter how much Fahmy tried to convince the judge he didn’t know them, it didn’t work. “I have not forgotten who put me in jail, but Al Jazeera was unethical and its illegal representations contributed immensely to my incarceration and that is the basis of my lawsuit. I hired lawyers from Canada from inside my prison cell and we collected information to bring this lawsuit.”
Fahmy was sentenced to seven years in prison, appealed, got out on bail, was sentenced to three years and eventually released (after 412 days in prison) and pardoned in September of 2015. Since being imprisoned he has frequently spoken out about his case and his feelings toward Al Jazeera.
“The more the network coordinated and takes directions from the [Qatar] government, the more it becomes a mouthpiece for Qatari intelligence,” he said in a June interview with Bloomberg.
Looking back, Fahmy says he was surprised to learn that Al Jazeera English was not as separate as he believed from the Arabic network’s other interests.
“The network coordinated and took directives from Qatar’s government. This reflected on even us the English reporters and we had some of the best, I thought they would respect that; I didn’t look at it from a political point of view.”
However it was political.
“The Arabic channel and Qatar using this platform as a weapon against its neighbors left us English reporters as targets, and that is what Al Jazeera does, unfortunately, according to the research I conducted for the past two years.”
The network “continues to endanger lives of journalists because of dealings with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood” and other groups, he says.
He says that Al Jazeera violated its agreement with Riyadh about not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. “I have affidavits from senior staff who left and were never informed about the emir’s signature on the Riyadh agreement, so part of my law suit in Canada is to prove to the judge that the network is a mouthpiece for the Qatari government.”
Furthermore, “it’s a network that promotes democracy and free speech but does not allow a single member of the muffled Qatari opposition to discuss the lack of press freedom political parties, labor unions, so many of Qatari opposition cannot appear; how can anyone take that seriously?” Israel’s Government Press Office is trying to revoke the press credentials of Al Jazeera correspondent Elias Karram.
According to Ynet it granted him a hearing on Tuesday after revoking his press card in mid-August. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara has also sought, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s backing, to shut down the cable network’s operations in Israel, including its Jerusalem office.
Fahmy says he can understand why. “People don’t focus on the aspects of the news gathering and what happens behind the scenes, and that aggravates security apparatuses around the world. For instance, the government Israel has the right to stop and warn Al Jazeera or to take a harsh stance when they learn they are dealing in the news gathering with Hamas, which is a designated terrorist group.”
He acknowledges people will say this is against press freedom, but “they [Qatar] use the press.”
Why is it unethical for a news organization to interview terrorists or even send students with cameras to record protests as a part of news gathering? Fahmy says Al Jazeera crosses the line.
“The difference is between me establishing a line [source] to speak to someone designated as a terrorist, but if I provide money in return for his footage, or if I request [to pay] a commission to him to do filming for me, then this is not just establishing dialogue.”
He argues this represents a relationship beyond journalism.
And this is why security services in the Middle East, whether in Israel or Egypt or other countries, have become involved.
The lawsuit is important because it comes at the same time that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries have broken relations with Qatar and have demanded that it end its relations with terrorist groups and close Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera has pushed back, in a July article, accusing the UAE’s ambassador to the US of supporting Fahmy.
Al Jazeera has also claimed that one of its former cameramen, who is also suing the network, is “linked to Egypt security agency.”
Fahmy’s lawsuit is scheduled to go to court in January, he says. “It will be the first time Al Jazeera is tried in public in one of the best judicial systems, and they cannot say it is politicized...
The world will see how this network has broken the Guinness Book of World Records of unethical journalism.”