The New York Times carries an op-ed today raising the troubling case of Egypt’s arrest of a number of journalists affiliated with Al Jazeera. Marwan Bishara, a political analyst at Al Jazeera, writes:
The Egyptian authorities have rounded up several of our colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic, our Middle East service, confiscated their cameras and shut down our bureau. While all except one were released, arrest warrants were also issued for 20 people who, the government says, either currently work for Al Jazeera or have done so in the past, among them several foreigners. They include three journalists from Al Jazeera English, the English-language network that also includes Al Jazeera America, who were arrested in December: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. They have now been charged with broadcasting false reports of unrest with the intention of helping the Muslim Brotherhood destabilize Egypt. This is merely propaganda to cover up censorship and repression. Mr. Greste, our award-winning foreign correspondent, wrote from his cold cell: “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”
Bishara address a number of key points, and while I cannot comment on the merits of the specific case, not having seen the Al Jazeera reports to which Egyptian authorities reacted nor the evidence the Egyptian government plans to use to back formal charges, there are no angels in this dispute. Certainly, Egyptian authorities have misused the judiciary in their increasingly paranoid drive to stifle both civil society and criticism. The United States, for example, remains deeply troubled with regard to the case of National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute employees arrested in Egypt.
At the same time, Al Jazeera reporters have sometimes violated basic journalistic ethics. On several occasions during the Iraq war, according to U.S. army officers, American servicemen received anonymous calls drawing them to a certain location, only to observe Al Jazeera reporters manning positions around what later turned out to be a massive booby-trap. Watching American servicemen murdered might make good ratings, but coordinating with insurgents and terrorists ahead of time certainly is not the proper role of journalists. Nor did Al Jazeera exemplify honest journalism when it threw a birthday party for Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese terrorist who had killed a four-year girl he had kidnapped by crushing her skull with a rifle butt.
There is no such thing as a legitimate target, regardless of the politics of Al Jazeera or any other media outlet. At the same time, outlets like Al Jazeera have proven that its employees are not above reproach. Just because someone carries a press card does not mean that they should enjoy immunity for behavior that may not conform to the who, what, where, why, and when of traditional journalism. The United States, for example, would certainly prosecute a Xinhua journalist if that individual moonlighted in espionage for the Chinese state.
So what to do? In such a situation, no one deserves benefit of the doubt. It behooves the Egyptian authorities to show that their accusations are warranted; if they are, then there is no reason why the individuals arrested should not be prosecuted. If Egypt is simply acting out of animus toward Al Jazeera’s home state of Qatar, the main sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, then Cairo risks losing all credibility. While journalists too frequently express professional solidarity with their colleagues across countries, the only thing that is certain right now is that there are no angels in the Egyptian conflict.