A Egyptian court is to try Al-Jazeera journalists on Thursday for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, in a case that sparked accusations of censorship against 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 Mohammed Mursi, 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 Mursi supporters have been killed in street clashes.
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 government has designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, although the group denies involvement in a spate of bombings since Mursi’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.
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.
It said a fact-finding trip suggested that “security forces have been systematically accusing journalists of unsupported charges of aiding terrorists or spreading ‘false news’ in an effort to frighten all journalists and hinder independent news-gathering.”
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 said 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.