Egyptian military begins to round up journalists

Egyptian prosecutors said on Wednesday that they were charging 20 journalists working for the Al Jazeera television network with conspiring with a terrorist group and broadcasting false images of “a civil war that raises alarms about the state’s collapse.”

The charges are the latest turn in a widening clampdown on public dissent by the military-backed government that ousted President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood six months ago. The government has outlawed the Brotherhood, declared it a terrorist organization, jailed its leaders and killed more than a thousand of its supporters in the streets. Foreign Ministry and state information service officials say that they cannot be certain whether merely publishing an interview with a Brotherhood representative may now be a crime.

Al Jazeera, a satellite news channel owned by Qatar, is virtually the only major Arabic-language news outlet available in Egypt that is sympathetic to the Brotherhood and critical of the government. After Mr. Morsi’s ouster, security forces moved to shut down most other Egyptian news media outlets aligned with him and the Brotherhood, and the remaining privately owned news organizations have almost all cheered for the government’s bloody crackdown on the Islamists.

Al Jazeera was the notable exception, and it has been the target of a campaign by the government, which has closed down the network’s newsrooms in the country and denounced the network as a terrorist tool.

The prosecutors’ statement describing the charges against the 20 journalists accuses them of manipulating video footage “to produce unreal scenes to suggest abroad that what is happening in the country is a civil war that raises alarms about the state’s collapse.” The statement said the defendants had broadcast the images over Al Jazeera “to assist the terrorist group” — the Brotherhood — “in achieving its purpose of influencing international public opinion.”

Sixteen of the 20 defendants are Egyptians; they were charged with “joining a terrorist group” with the purpose of “damaging national security and social peace.” The four foreigners — two British, one Australian and one Dutch — were charged with collaborating with the Egyptian defendants, in part by providing money, equipment and information.

The statement appears to say that all the defendants were also charged with “possession of documents and recordings promoting the group” and with operating communications equipment without a permit.

If convicted, each of the defendants could be sentenced to several years in prison.

The prosecutors said that eight of the 20 defendants were in custody and that the rest were “fugitives.” They did not announce the defendants’ names.

Of the eight, the authorities have been holding five Al Jazeera journalists without charges — at least three of them since late December and at least one since August. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that there are three other journalists in jail awaiting charges, but they are not believed to work for Al Jazeera.

“The world knows these allegations against our journalists are absurd, baseless and false,” Al Jazeera said in a statement. “This is a challenge to free speech, to the right of journalists to report on all aspects of events, and to the right of people to know what is going on.”

The State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said Egypt should reconsider the prosecution. “The government’s targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms,” she said.

One of the detained journalists, Abdullah Elshami, 25, is now on the 10th day of a hunger strike, according to his brother, Mosa’ab Elshami. Abdullah Elshami has been held since Aug. 20.

Another is Mohamed Fahmy, 40, an Egyptian-Canadian producer for Al Jazeera’s English language news network. His family and colleagues say that he has been held in solitary confinement and has been denied treatment for a shoulder injury he sustained before his arrest.

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