Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has petitioned the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, The Gambia, requesting the commission “to urgently intervene to prevail on the Egyptian authorities to end the continuing imprisonment of all Al Jazeera journalists and human rights defenders facing unfair trial and persecution for simply carrying out their lawful duties.”
The petition dated 15 April 2014 and sent to Ms Pansy Tlakula, Commissioner and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, was signed by Solicitor to SERAP, Femi Falana, SAN.
According to SERAP, “prosecutors on January 29, 2014, referred three Al Jazeera English journalists to trial on politicised charges such as disseminating “false information” and belonging to a “terrorist organisation,” some of which carry prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. The three detained Al Jazeera journalists are: Egyptian nationals Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed and an Australian, Peter Greste.”
The petition reads in part: “SERAP believes that their continuing detention and persecution amounts to a violation of their right to freedom of expression and press freedom, guaranteed under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Egypt is a state party.”
“SERAP is concerned that their continuing imprisonment and persecution is also a fundamental breach of their right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The organisation also expressed concern that “the arrest and persecution of these journalists and human rights defenders cannot be justified on any grounds whatsoever, and show the intolerance of the Egyptian authorities for any form of dissent.”
“SERAP also contends that the guarantee of freedom of expression applies with particular force to the media, including the broadcast media. Indeed, the right to freedom of expression and peoples’ right to seek and receive information cannot be meaningful unless the media is allowed to play its key role in a democratic society without political interference, influence, imprisonment, or persecution through unfair trial,” the organisation also stated.
According to the organisation, “The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in its preamble, recognises the key role media and other means of communication play, ‘in ensuring full respect for freedom of expression, in promoting the free flow of information and ideas, in assisting people to make informed decisions and in facilitating and strengthening democracy.’”
The organisation also said that, “States are required not only to refrain from interfering with rights but also take positive steps to ensure that rights, including freedom of expression, are respected. In effect, governments including the Egyptian authorities are under an obligation to create an environment in which a diverse, independent media can flourish, thereby satisfying the public’s right to know.
“Without press freedom, it is much easier for governments to take away other human rights and to perpetrate official and large scale corruption. Citizens with more information are empowered to make better choices. A free press is not a luxury, it is a human right that should not be denied the citizens. A free press is at the core of equitable development, fairness and justice,” the organisation added.
SERAP therefore requested Commissioner Tlakula to:
Publicly express concerns about the continuing imprisonment and persecution of all Al Jazeera journalists and human rights defenders for simply doing their job, and insist that Egyptian authorities immediately and unconditionally release them, consistent with the country’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Urge the Egyptian authorities to translate its international legal obligations and commitments relating to freedom of expression and the media into concrete action by withdrawing all charges against the journalists and human rights defenders without further delay
Propose and facilitate the adoption of a resolution on the issue by the African Commission during its 55th Ordinary Session in Angola.
“Unless the Special Rapporteur urgently intervene to stop this unfair trial and persecution of the journalists, they risk many years in an Egyptian prison for simply carrying out their professional calling,” the organisation also argued.
It would be recalled that at least 17 other journalists and opposition figures face similar charges in the same case. Authorities have detained the three in Tora Prison, in southern Cairo, since their arrest. In a letter from prison, Greste described routinely being kept in his cell for 24 hours a day and allowed out only for questioning. Until recently, authorities held Fahmy and Mohamed in the maximum-security Scorpion unit of the prison, where people alleged to be responsible for terrorist attacks are held.