Ranjona Banerji: The dangers of dissent for Egypt’s journalists

24 Jun,2014

By Ranjona Banerji

 

An Egyptian court has sentenced two Al-Jazeera journalists to seven years in prison and another to 10 years for “aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news”. Two other Al-Jazeera journalists have been sentenced in absentia, to 10 years each. Al-Jazeera has denied all the charges against their staff who had reported on the turbulent events after Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office in July last year.

 

Is this another case of shooting the messenger or of a people wanting only news that appeals to their sensibilities being given prominence?

 

Many Egyptians felt cheated when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power after the “Arab spring” and the removal of Hosni Mubarak. The army then removed Morsi who was seen as pro-Brotherhood.

 

However, a democracy is all about everyone getting a chance even those you don’t like. And journalism is all about reporting on the unpleasant as it is about telling you which movie star absolutely hates wearing pink. Life-threatening stories all but someone has to do them.

 

The Egyptian courts however seem to have confused a dislike amongst some for the Muslim Brotherhood with reporting on events around the Muslim Brotherhood. The two are neither interchangeable nor the same. Democracy is about dissent as many have pointed out and there will always be some story which offends someone’s political sensibilities. Jail is not the answer, especially when evidence appears to have been thin on the ground.

 

This is from a New York Times editorial about the trial: “In fact, when asked by the court to display the allegedly false news reports obtained from the defendants’ laptops, prosecutors showed images of one journalist’s family vacation and horses grazing in Luxor, Egypt. That would be laughable if the consequences were not so grave.”

 

Appeals will apparently take years and the implications for journalists who want to venture further from boring bread-and-butter stories seem ominous. So much easier to earn an easy wage than disturb the status quo, as we see many of our colleagues do with a dispensation in power? The journalistic community the world over stands in solidarity with Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. It is the least we can do.

 

In the Indian context, we are not yet in this position and indeed are very far from it. But it is true that dissent is not understood or appreciated by all sides of the political spectrum and this is true of journalists themselves. There is immense bitterness and anger for journalists with the community who do not toe some line or the other. However, being difficult is our birthright and we should not budge from it.

 

**

 

Every year I write this and why should this year be any different? How does one get through to the foreign news channels which broadcast around the world that their weather people need to have a little more understanding of local weather conditions? The BBC World Service is the worst offender here. As India struggles with a heat wave or a slow monsoon we are repeatedly told about “fine, dry, sunny weather” all over the country – with temperatures at 40 degrees Celsius this is quite heartening for us miserable natives. We understand that the UK is a nation plagued by rain and craving sunshine. But when you broadcast on what you call a “World Service” how much will it hurt to figure out how the rest of the world looks at itself?

 

For the record then, the monsoon is vital for India’s survival. We look forward to it. It is late this year, already 45 per cent below par. The effects can be catastrophic. So, throwaway remarks about “scattered showers normal for this season” really hurt. Not everyone sees life as an opportunity to get skin cancer in the Costa del Sol. For some of us, rain is life.

 

As a final note, I spent a miserably hot summer in the UK last year, covering Wimbledon for Mid-Day. People were dying from the heat. The weather forecasts did not then drone on and on about “fine dry weather”. Think of this Indian situation with extreme heat in some parts and a missing monsoon something like that, please.

 

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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: The dangers of dissent for Egypt’s journalists”

  1. Guest says:

    The Egyptian judicial system is exceptional. Recently, a few hundred people were sentenced to death in a single trial, sketchy on time and detail, for the murder of one or two policemen.