Jian Ghomeshi speaks with media editor Behdad Mahichi on Feb. 27 in Nathan Phillips Square.

Students, professors and celebrities rally to free Al Jazeera journalists

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By Brennan Doherty

Roughly 60 journalists rallied at Nathan Phillips Square on Feb. 27, calling on Egypt to release three Al Jazeera journalists. Al Jazeera is an Arab news and current affairs network.

“We’re here to put pressure on the Egyptian government to free Mohamed Fahmy and his colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed,” said Tom Henheffer of the Canadian Journalism for Free Expression (CJFE).

Henheffer said they also want to drop charges against other journalists in Egypt who have been charged with “ridiculous crimes simply for carrying out the duties of their work.”

“We want to call on the Egyptian government to release them, as well as on the Canadian government to call for their release publicly, and strongly, and unequivocally, to get them free,” he said.

Other speakers at the rally included Al Jazeera producer, Jet Belgraver and Ryerson journalism professor and former Al Jazeera senior producer, Tony Burman.  The CBC host, Jian Ghomeshi was in attendance, as were a number of foreign correspondents and Al Jazeera staff.

The three journalists from Al Jazeera English — Canadian producer Mohamed Fahmy, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed — were arrested in Egypt on Dec. 29, 2013 while working for the Qatar-based Middle Eastern news network.

Egyptian authorities have accused the three of being members of a terrorist group and spreading false news. Authorities have even announced that the three have ‘confessed’ to the charges, a statement denied by Al Jazeera’s legal team.

Current signatories include Al Jazeera English, CJFE, the Canadian Association of Journalists, Journalists for Human Rights, PEN Canada and various Canadian and international non-profit agencies concerned with free speech and human rights abuses.  The U.S State Department, British Foreign secretary, and UN Human Rights Commissioner have also independently condemned Egypt for its actions.

Participants are asked to retweet the hashtag #FreeAJStaff, and post pictures of themselves with black tape across their mouths.  Since Feb. 1, the hashtag has been tweeted 250 million times on Twitter.

Belgraver read a statement from Fahmy’s family aloud at the rally.

“It’s been two months now that Mohamed has been unjustly detained. Two months, that felt like two years for us.  Our lives have become paralyzed as our full focus is on this crisis.  We simply cannot think about anything other than Mohamed.”  The statement went on to praise efforts made by the Canadian consulate.

Burman said that the government should become more directly involved in the issue.

“I think like many people here I’m urging, as I think so many of us are, that the Canadian government finally does its duty on the behalf of its citizens and tells the Egyptian government that what’s going is simply unacceptable,” he said.

Despite the response to this case, the imprisonment of journalists for the work that they do is not unheard of.  Canadian correspondent for Al Jazeera English, Daniel Lak spoke of a former colleague, a British journalist named Allen Johnson, who was imprisoned for 144 days while reporting in Gaza.  Intense lobbying by the British government helped to secure his release.  Johnson later flew to Toronto to visit Lak and other journalists who’d supported him during his imprisonment.

“One of the first things he said was: whenever he found out what had happened either through listening to the radio, or a smuggled message, it was kind of the only thing that made him happy during otherwise completely horrible days,” Johnson said.

“Some have governments that add to the challenge, but we have to help each other.  We just have to.  We’re a global profession.  There’s no borders between us.”

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