It’s that time of the year when I name the Woolly Days media personality of the year. The “award” dates back to 2009 when I complimented ABC boss Mark Scott for taking his organisation into the 21st century and leading the fighting against Australian media Murdochocracy. 2010 was the year of Julian Assange, who despite cringe-worthy self-centredness, did as much as anyone to tell stories people didn’t want told (the definition of journalism). In 2011 I gave it to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Nick Davies for shining a light on News Corp’s despicable practices in the UK, with the tacit approval of the police. Their full extent was revealed in Judge Brian Leveson’s inquiry in 2012 and he was my winner for that year. In 2013, Edward Snowden was a dominant winner for his spectacular expose for the intelligence practices and malpractices of the US and its allies.
There has been no standout this year but there is a deserving winner, or rather three deserving winners bucking a trend in news journalism. I recently saw the movie Nightcrawler, an excoriating treatment of evening news priorities. TV news journalism in the big American cities (and here in Australia) is all about ambulance chasing, the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy leading to news services overwhelmingly devoting time to petty local crime.
That criticism can’t be levelled at the three Al Jazeera employees who share the Woolly Days media personality of the year for 2014. Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and their Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed end the year as they started it in an Egyptian prison. The trio were reporting on the aftermath of the overthrow of Egypt’s elected government when arrested almost exactly a year ago. After a long and often farcical trial they were sentenced to multiple year prison terms for reporting news “damaging to national security.”
The sentences were widely condemned across the world though I queried their employer’s role in the matter. Al Jazeera’s owners, the emirs of Qatar, have dabbled dangerously in Middle East politics and bankrolled former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi with Qatari LNG. When Morsi was overthrown Qatar gave sanctuary to several high-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt accused Al Jazeera of bias in their reporting.
The most well-known of the three in Australia, Peter Greste acknowledged the problem in his letters from prison. Greste wrote that despite its responsibility for Islamist violence, the Brotherhood remained the largest social and political force in Egypt. “What then for a journalist striving for ‘balance, fairness and accuracy?’” Greste asked. “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?” Greste and Fahmy decided they had to keep talking to everyone, regardless of the consequences. This is admirable and courageous, but didn’t acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics.
While Greste has been the focus of Australian efforts thanks to his media-savvy parents, Fahmy has been more prominent in Canada, where he attended university. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is among those calling for his release. Fahmy’s CV is impressive. He was a stringer in the 2003 Iraq War for the LA Times and wrote a book on his experiences called “Baghdad Bound”. When the Arab Spring broke out, he returned to his native Egypt and chronicled the uprising in a photo documentary he called “Egyptian Freedom Story”.
Baher Mohamed is a graduate of Cairo University. He worked for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper for five years, and freelanced for CNN and Iran’s English-language Press TV before joining Al Jazeera in 2013. In his trial, the prosecution said his father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and had tried to make him go to religious classes organised by the Islamist movement. But Mohamed refused to attend because they were “boring”. Mohamed got the seven years sentence of the other two but also an additional three years for having a weapon.
Their year in prison has been filled with false hope of an early release, most recently in November when Greste’s parents spoke of a possible pardon from Egypt’s president. Their best bet is a thaw in relations between Egypt and Qatar with the visit of a top Qatari envoy to Cairo. Egypt said it looked “forward to a new era that ends past disagreements” but made no mention of the Al Jazeera trio.
The Committee to Protect Journalists say they are among at least 12 journalists behind bars in Egypt. Four have been convicted including Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed. The other is Abdel Rahman Shaheen, a correspondent for Freedom and Justice News Gate. Shaheen was sentenced by a Suez court in June to three years jail on charges of inciting and committing violence during protests in April.
Many are saying Egypt has declared journalism a crime. The CPJ has released a documentary called Under Threat as the government cracks down on the press, forcing independent and critical voices into silence, exile, or prison. The film documents the dangers of working for Egyptian media, impunity in the killings of reporters, and the ongoing imprisonments of journalists. For braving those dangers, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are my media personalities of 2014. Here’s hoping for a swift release for them and fellow journalists in 2015.