One brisk but unseasonably sunny winter morning I found myself on the roof of my London office, some gaffer tape over my mouth and a camera trained on my face.
Close to a dozen of my colleagues from Amnesty’s press office were huddled together in the same strange predicament.
Fortunately for us, this wasn’t for some “proof of life” portrait by hostage-takers, as a means to extract a ransom from afar.
But we were there because – in a sense, at least – we did feel under siege.
Daily we come across countless cases of human rights being trampled around the world. A litany of the worst horrors imaginable, crammed into our working day.
But, as journalists and media workers, this time it was personal. We felt particularly compelled to stand up and speak out – or protest silently, in this case – at the plight of some of our colleagues abroad who had been deprived of their liberty just for doing their jobs.
Al Jazeera English correspondent Peter Greste, along with producers Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, have been imprisoned in Egypt since their arrest on 29 December 2013.
They are due back in court on 5 March, accused of spreading “false news” harmful to state security and assisting or belonging to a banned terrorist group. They and their broadcaster categorically deny the charges. They face trial along with Egyptian journalists and media students, as well as a foreign national now being tried in absentia. Amnesty has called their imprisonment “a major setback for media freedom” that “sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today – that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities.”
But their case is just the tip of the iceberg.
Other media workers are also behind bars and on trial in Egypt, just for carrying out their jobs. Rassd news network journalists Islam Farahat and Amr Al Qazaz have been imprisoned since November 2013 and referred to military trial for leaking documents and videos of Defence Minister Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Amnesty has called the journalists prisoners of conscience, detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. If convicted, the men face up to a life sentence.
The country has witnessed an alarming escalation in attacks on press freedom since Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013. In the run-up to this year’s elections, a free press and lively public debate is more important than ever.
Sadly, Egypt is far from alone in its repression, intimidation and incarceration of media workers.
In its annual World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders surveyed 180 countries and found that armed conflicts and governments’ overly-broad use of national security measures and surveillance are among the factors that have resulted in a clear deterioration of freedom of the press in every part of the world.
The findings of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual Attacks on the Press report are equally sobering. At the end of last year, 211 journalists were imprisoned globally, and 99 had been killed while carrying out their work.
Assaults on the media are more than just an occupational hazard. As Reporters without Borders points out, strategically targeting the media in an attempt “to control news and information violate[s] the guarantees enshrined in international law, in particular, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Protocols Additional 1 and 2 to the Geneva Conventions.”
Amnesty has documented a pattern of journalists facing repression and attacks around the world. In the Syrian armed conflict, scores of journalists reporting on human rights abuses have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, detained, subjected to enforced disappearances and tortured. Outside conflict zones, too, the organization has reported on media workers coming under attack, in countries including Azerbaijan, Liberia, Mexico, and Sri Lanka, to name but a few recent examples.
Journalists are frequently threatened, physically assaulted, and jailed on trumped-up charges, including “endangering national security” or “terrorism”.
Journalism is not a crime. Journalism is not terrorism. Journalism is an important cornerstone of freedom.
Responsible reporting about the issues that shape people’s lives is a key building block of any free society. And this freedom matters.
It matters enough, that when Al Jazeera hosted a global day of action for their imprisoned staff members in late February, thousands of people in more than 30 cities worldwide took part. The hashtag #FreeAJstaff, used to highlight the campaign, received an estimated quarter of a billion impressions on Twitter.
When journalists are threatened, arrested, attacked or otherwise cowed into silence, the truth dies. It is up to all of us to keep it alive.