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#FreeAJStaff Egypt Press

#FreeAJStaff: Al Jazeera's head of media shares the inside story of the campaign for press freedom – and livelihoods

By Osama Saeed

July 2, 2014 | 6 min read

As the support piled in for Al Jazeera's jailed journalists last week, people in the industry have asked how we managed the outpouring of support for them from all corners of the world, in what has been described as the biggest ever press freedom campaign.

Larry King pledges his support to #FreeAJStaff

The response has been overwhelming – we were struggling to keep track last week such was its scale. The BBC held a silent protest outside its headquarters in London, attended by hundreds of staff in an amazing scene of solidarity. There were editorials in support of us in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. The leaders or foreign ministers of the US, UK, and Australia used words such as "chilling", "draconian", and “a major step in the wrong direction” about the verdict in Egypt.

For those who have not been following the case, Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested in Cairo on 29 December 2013. It's an unfortunate hazard of working in this profession that you will get picked up by the authoritarian regimes from time to time.

In my previous experience of such cases, this lasts for a few days, before back channels and public pressure make the jailers realise it’s in their own interest to release the journalists. Last week though, our boys were astonishingly sentenced to seven, seven and 10 years respectively. In this particular case, not only do the Egyptian authorities not care about press freedom, but they appear not to realise the damage they are doing to the image of their country worldwide.

In the course of the last few months, hundreds of thousands of people have been involved in the campaign to release our three. Protests have been held in over 30 countries including Australia, the Philippines, Pakistan, across the Middle East, Nigeria, and South Africa. Petitions have been handed in to Egyptian embassies coordinated by the likes of Avaaz, and Amnesty International. Esteemed press freedom and human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch, the International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression have spoken out.

The United Nations, the White House and the European Union have all said that the three should be freed. Senior US politicians like John McCain, Hank Johnson and Patrick Leahy have been vocal. Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid has been blocked and is in dispute. Australia, where Pater hails from, has been in uproar.

Celebrities like Larry King and Mia Farrow have condemned the situation. A plane flew over Brazil's Copacabana beach bearing the hashtag #FreeAJStaff. This hashtag has been viral and trending globally for months, making almost 2bn impressions on Twitter alone.

#FreeAJStaff really took off after the Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa staged its February protest in Nairobi. Journalists there posted selfies while gagged and holding up a sign with the hashtag. We kept this going and thousands have continued to do likewise. Channel 4 News’s Alex Thomson continues to post a picture daily.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has described the campaign of intimidation Al Jazeera faced in the country since last summer as "unprecedented". What should give us all heart is that the response to this from free-thinking people everywhere has also been unprecedented.

The supporters of our journalists aren't necessarily viewers or fans of Al Jazeera. Indeed, those who are normally competitors of ours, like CNN, have been amongst the biggest sources of support. When it comes to press freedom, we are one tribe. A threat to one is a threat to all. They recognise that the model rolled out by the Egyptian authorities over the last year could easily be replicated on them in Egypt or anywhere else. This cannot be allowed to stand.

It hasn't been easy running this campaign though. We're all emotionally invested. There are lives at stake. We know the families. These are our guys, and everyone in the newsroom knows this could have been them. Keeping a calm clear head isn't easy, but is imperative.

As well as thinking of creative campaign ideas, like taking out a blank page advert in the New York Times (to show what happens when you silence journalists) we have to deal with real-time crisis communications. Since court proceedings began in February, we've had to respond to the high farce which was the evidence presented to the judge. This has ranged from Sky News Arabia videos about tourism, music from Gotye, and some of Peter's award winning work from East Africa.

The procedural flaws in the case have been numerous. The prosecution tried to charge us £120,000 for the right to see the shoddy evidence against us. Three independent technical witnesses who assessed the supposed "false news" that we aired all miraculously filed exactly the same written reports. They were judging our English language output, despite not being able to speak English.

This was delivered by the same Egyptian prosecution service that separately detained a fourth Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, for 10 months without charge since August 2013. He courageously went on hunger strike in January. He lost a third of his weight, and at points was close to death. He was finally released last month.

His case gives us hope that sanity will eventually prevail. Certainly our resolve will not waiver until Peter, Baher and Mohamed are back with their families, and back doing the jobs for which they have sacrificed so much. We're grateful for all the support that has poured in so far. Let's keep it up.

Osama Saeed is head of media and PR at Al Jazeera. You can follow him on Twitter @osamasaeed

#FreeAJStaff Egypt Press

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