CAIRO Feb 20 — An Egyptian court is to try Al Jazeera journalists on Thursday for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, in a case that has sparked accusations of censorship by the military installed government.
The trial of journalists for the Qatar based channel comes against the backdrop of strained relations between Cairo and Doha, which backed deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, ousted by the army in July, and his now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Prosecutors allege that the defendants, including award winning Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, manipulated footage and supported the Brotherhood.
In all, 20 “Al Jazeera journalists” are on trial, but only eight of them are in custody.
Prosecutors say they falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war”, possibly a reference to the broadcaster’s coverage of a crackdown in which more than 1,000 Morsi supporters have been killed in street clashes.
The government has designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, although the group denies involvement in a spate of bombings since Morsi’s overthrow.
Al Jazeera, which says only nine of the defendants are on its staff, has denied the charges.
Greste, a former BBC correspondent, and Fahmy, who worked with CNN before joining Al Jazeera, were arrested in a Cairo hotel in December.
The other foreign journalists listed in the indictment are abroad and will be tried in absentia.
They are Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane and Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who was indicted even though she does not work for the channel.
Turton, an award winning journalist who formerly worked for the British Sky News and Channel 4, told AFP she hoped the court would throw out the charges.
“Basically (the charges) relate to me aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation by providing money and equipment,” she said in a telephone interview.
“I was extremely upset when the boys were put in prison,” she said of the jailed journalists. “We were all just thinking the authorities would realise what a huge mistake they made,” she said.
“We are absolutely relying on the judges and the Egyptian legal system to throw the (charges) out of the court.”
Turton said she had left Egypt after a brief reporting mission in November 2013, more than a month before the Muslim Brotherhood was blacklisted.
– ‘Zero tolerance for dissent’ –
Human Rights Watch said the trial was part of a crackdown on dissent by the interim government.
“Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
The United States, press freedom groups and scores of journalists have protested against the detention of the reporters.
On Wednesday, the International Press Institute urged the court to release the journalists.
Greste himself, in a letter written from prison that was published last month by Al Jazeera, described what he sees as a lack of press freedom in Egypt.
“The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices,” he wrote. “The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.”
None of the arrested journalists appeared to have been working with press accreditation, and Egyptian authorities say they welcome accredited foreign journalists.
Officials insist the channel has been working for the benefit of Qatar, a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood that has even hosted some of its members who have fled the crackdown.
“It is a Qatari network and Qatar is the only Gulf Arab country supporting the Muslim Brotherhood,” a high ranking official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In the past, Al Jazeera, especially its Arabic language service, has come under criticism for allegedly biased reporting in the Arab world.