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World

Media muzzle: Egypt's propaganda drive

When Egypt's prosecutor general last month charged 16 Egyptian and four foreign Al Jazeera journalists with broadcasting false news and colluding with a terrorist group, Rena Netjes thought she had nothing to fear.

The Dutch radio and television journalist had never worked for the pan-Arab network, while her name did not match that of the journalist from the Netherlands accused in the case, Johanna Henrietta.

But when officials at her embassy in Cairo found that Netjes' Dutch fiscal number used for taxes - a number also listed in her passport - matched the passport number listed by Egyptian authorities, she realized the mistake.

"My baptismal name, Johanna Henrietta, is in my passport, Rena is not. I could see that they totally misspelled my name," said Netjes. When she discovered she had been swept up in the case and was now wanted by police, Netjes immediately went into hiding until she was able to flee the country a few days later.

The charges against the 20 journalists are the latest in a series of moves against Al Jazeera that has spread to encompass all foreign media critical of the military-backed regime.

But as international outcry has increased, critics say a propaganda campaign is being waged through domestic media that is stoking xenophobia and fueling attacks on journalists in the streets.

"He was in the worst places at the worst times, the war in Iraq, the war in Lebanon, the war in Libya during the revolution," Sherif Fahmy, the brother of Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, the Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera English, told DW. "Never was he detained as unjustly as what is happening now."

Journalists as targets

Man in front of tank

Mohamed Fahmy is a recognized war reporter

Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen who previously worked for CNN, was arrested on December 29 at the Marriott hotel in the capital's upscale Zamalek neighborhood along with Australian correspondent Peter Greste, a former BBC journalist who won a Peabody award for his work in Somalia, and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed. They were thrown into Cairo's Tora prison and have been held there ever since.

Netjes believes she was implicated in the case because she visited Fahmy at the Marriott hotel just days before the arrests to interview him about an insurgency in Egypt's Sinai region, a topic he has extensively covered. While visiting their suite, hotel staff took down her passport information.

"I never expected that would make me a member of a 'terror cell,'" she told DW from the Netherlands where she is now staying.

Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media watchdog, said that never before had they seen an international media organization targeted in the way that Al Jazeera is being targeted in Egypt, describing it as "unprecedented."

In separate cases, Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy and cameraman Mohammad Badr who works for Al Jazeera's Mubasher, the network's Egyptian affiliate, were arrested in July and August on charges of committing acts of violence. Badr was acquitted and released recently after being held for seven months without charge. Elshamy is still being held without charge and is currently on hunger strike in jail.

"It's part of a systematic crackdown that the military-led government started once they ousted [President Mohammed] Morsi, and they aim to basically bring back Mubarak-era repression by using the legal system and also brutal force when needed," Mansour told DW.

In 2013, press freedom indexes placed Egypt as the third-deadliest country for journalists, behind only Syria and Iraq.

The government and its supporters have gone beyond the Al Jazeera network and accused most of Egypt's foreign media of portraying the situation inside the country in a negative light, when they say they are on a path to democracy. State and private media have towed the government's narrative and their increasingly hostile rhetoric toward foreign media has triggered concern.

"Now everyday it is in the news, on all the channels that the foreign media is working for the Muslim Brotherhood, they are paid by the Muslim Brotherhood to execute their agenda," said Netjes who made news last April after she was detained in a citizens arrest and accused of espionage and "spreading European culture."

Journalist Rena Netjes

Netjes was accused of "colluding with terrorists"

Conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories that Western media in Egypt are supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and seeking to sow chaos in the country routinely grace the front pages of state-owned newspapers, and TV hosts have veered dangerously close to incitement.

One recent front page headline in the El Wafd newspaper alleged that there was a "dubious relationship between terrorists and Western press." The article went on to claim the Muslim Brotherhood has paid $3 billion to western newspapers in a plot to defame the Egyptian revolution.

Egyptian private television station Al-Tahrir recently broadcast a leaked video of the raid, arrest and interrogation of the three Al Jazeera English journalists working out of the Marriott hotel, which Egyptian media have called the "Marriott cell."

The video starts with police officers entering the hotel room and the camera zooming in on Fahmy's visibly scared face. Then, the camera pans across laptops, television cameras, external hard drives, notebooks of paper, pencils, Peter Greste's business car and even the toilet, all set to the dramatic soundtrack of the Hollywood action movie "Thor: The Dark World."

"It is a ridiculous video, propaganda, and everyone around the world knows this," said Sherif Fahmy. "I think they are passing a message to journalists around the world that if they are going to cover a story in Egypt, it better be favoring the political party in power now."

Manipulating the media

Mansour said the use of domestic media as a propaganda tool was nothing new to Egypt and that it was attacks during the rule of Morsi that made domestic media more willing to tow the military-backed government's line.

The CPJ says it has documented more than 600 criminal defamation cases during Morsi's presidency against media critics on vague allegations of "spreading wrong information," "disrupting peace," "insulting the president," and "insulting religion," far outpacing the number of similar cases under former president Hosni Mubarak.

But while the clampdown has had little impact on the general political class in Egypt, the deteriorating situation has triggered growing international condemnation.

Two people with mouths taped

Saying no to the media muzzle

Recently an international campaign calling for the release of journalists in Egypt was launched across the globe, and Fahmy's brother says it has been making an impact. Online supporters of the detained journalists have posted photos of themselves with tape covering their mouths and rallies have been held in Nairobi, the city Greste was based, and elsewhere across the globe.

Just days after the international campaign began, Fahmy said his brother, Mohamed Baher, and Peter Greste were moved to a different prison where conditions are better. Both Fahmy and Baher Mohamed had been held in solitary confinement in the "Scorpion" section of the prison, a place reserved for the most violent of criminals. Fahmy's brother had also been denied medical treatment for a broken shoulder and instead forced to sleep on the cement floor without a blanket for over a month, according to his family.

"He's very optimistic that this will all come to an end soon," said Fahmy of his brother. "I think [the authorities] are starting to realize that sooner or later they are the ones who are going to ruin Egypt's image."

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