Published Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 | 8:21 a.m.
Updated Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 | 8:23 a.m.
CAIRO (AP) — Accompanied by a dramatic music score, an Egyptian TV channel has aired a video of the arrest and initial interrogation of two Al-Jazeera journalists at a Cairo hotel, escalating a campaign by the country's military-backed authorities against the Qatari-based network.
The nearly 22-minute video began with the network's Canadian-Egyptian acting bureau chief in Cairo, Mohammed Fahmy, looking stunned as he opens the door of the hotel suite for security men. It ends with a shot of Fahmy and prize-winning Australian correspondent Peter Greste being taken away in a minivan outside the hotel.
The release of the tape was unusual even in Egypt, where authorities have detained several reporters after the ouster of the country's Islamist president in July led to months of deadly turmoil.
The government has focused its ire on Al-Jazeera, claiming it is promoting violence and divisions and is allegedly working for Egypt's largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government has designated as a terrorist organization. Al-Jazeera has consistently denied the charges, saying its journalists were only doing their jobs.
Other foreign journalists have complained of rising incidents of intimidation and xenophobia while reporting on the streets. But the State Information Service, or SIS, the government body that accredits foreign journalists, insists that the incidents are not sanctioned by the government.
The agency has sought to reassure foreign journalists working in Egypt, saying in a statement that it was committed to ensure that they worked freely to cover the news in an "objective and balanced" way and that local laws guaranteed the freedom of expression and the press.
However, the Jan. 30 statement warned journalists against deviating from their mission or operating in the country without accreditation or permits.
Al-Jazeera strongly condemned the video, which was aired late Sunday on the private Al-Tahrir television station. It argued the footage, which was accompanied by dramatic music, was aimed at demonizing its journalists, inciting anger against the network, and could prejudice the upcoming trial of the two men in the footage along with 18 other employees accused of working for or aiding a terrorist organization and endangering national security.
The video reviewed the contents of the Nile-side hotel suite like it was a crime scene, showing laptops, TV screens, wires and lights for live spots used by correspondents. Also shown were piece of papers on which there were notes on protests by Morsi's supporters.
"The video ridiculously sets images of our crew's laptops, cameras and mobile phones against dramatic music. People who look beyond the propaganda though will see the video shows what we have been saying all along - that our crew were journalists doing their job," Salah Negm, director of news for the network's English-language channel, said in a statement.
"They were also not operating in Cairo secretly. The team openly filed several packages and live reports prior to their arrest," he said. He called for their immediate release.
The Jan. 29 arrests sparked an outcry from rights groups and journalist advocacy organizations. The United States also voiced its concern over what it called the targeting of journalists.
On Sunday, an Egyptian court freed an Al-Jazeera cameraman after six months in detention. Mohamed Badr, a cameraman for the network's Egyptian channel, was arrested following clashes that followed Morsi's ouster on July 3. He was acquitted along with 61 others.
The footage aired by Al-Tahrir doesn't show any of the security men who raided the hotel suite, but two voices, presumably of security officers, are heard asking questions. Producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian known to have been arrested with Fahmy and Greste, does not appear in the video.
The men ask Fahmy how he gets paid, whom the channel interviews and the number and names of his crew. He is repeatedly asked why they are working out of a hotel, to which he replies that he is still searching for an office.
Fahmy, who has his right arm in a sling, appears to be in pain, frequently pressing his right arm with his left hand.
A worried-looking Greste is asked by one of the security officers whether he can read Arabic, after which the Australian asks for someone to interpret. He is later seen grim faced while sitting next to Fahmy on a sofa while the bureau chief is being questioned.
Replying to a question, Fahmy says neither he nor Greste have accreditation to work in Egypt but that they have applied for press cards.
If Al-Jazeera's staffers go on trial, it would mark the first time Egypt prosecutes journalists on terrorism-related charges.
Details of the charges and the names of defendants have not been made public. The prosecutors' office has said 16 Egyptians in the case are accused of joining a terrorist group, while an Australian, a Dutch citizen and two Britons are accused of helping to promote false news benefiting a terrorist group.
Prosecutors also allege that the 20 journalists set up a media center for the Brotherhood in two suites in a luxury Cairo hotel.
They say the defendants "manipulated pictures" to create "unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state" and broadcast scenes to aid "the terrorist group in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion."
No date has been set for the start of the trial.
If found guilty, they could face sentences ranging from three years for spreading false news to 15 for belonging to a terrorist group.
The charges are based on the government's recent designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Though authorities have long depicted Al-Jazeera as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood, police have largely targeted the network's Arabic service and its Egyptian affiliate, which remained one of the few TV stations to provide a platform for the Brotherhood after the crackdown following the coup.