Mohamed Fahmy and Amal Clooney: #FreedAJStaff

October 9, 2015

By Charlotte Beale

On Wednesday 7 October, former Al Jazeera English bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy joined a packed audience at the Frontline Club in his first public appearance since his release from a Cairo prison on 23 September. Fahmy was joined in conversation by his lawyer Amal Clooney and BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet.

Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian dual citizen, was arrested in December 2013 along with colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, and sentenced to seven years in a maximum security prison on terrorism-related charges. He was finally pardoned by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on 23 September.

“I am a changed man and I am inspired by what’s happened to me – that’s why I’m fighting for other journalists,” Fahmy said of his newly-established Fahmy Foundation, which will support journalists across the world who have been unjustly imprisoned.

Critical in the past of the Canadian government’s failure to intervene strongly enough on his behalf, Fahmy repeated: “I do believe the Canadian government could have done more.”

He went on to emphasise that “governments should be much faster in intervening” when their citizens are held abroad. “Intervention needs to come immediately, from the highest levels of government.” Fahmy expressed his concern that this had not yet happened in the case of Iraqi VICE News journalist Mohamed Rasool, currently detained in Turkey on charges related to terrorism.

Denouncing Canada’s new Bill C-24, which allows the government to revoke a dual national’s Canadian citizenship if the citizen is convicted of terrorism, Fahmy said, “it’s a very dangerous law. It overrides the judiciary… it should be revisited.”

The discussion then moved onto the role of Al Jazeera, with reports of Fahmy suing his former employer for $100m on the basis of negligence in May 2015. “Al-Jazeera’s shortcomings and mistakes contributed to our situation,” he said. “I had specifically asked many times, are we legal in the Marriott [the Cairo hotel where Fahmy’s broadcast team was based]? They said, ‘Yes, stick to the editorial side, don’t worry about it’… but the answer – I found out in court.”

Fahmy continued, “I asked Al-Jazeera to take responsibility, to present a letter to the judge saying ‘[Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed] have nothing to do with this, this is our fault’, but they did not… it really angered me.”

“It was important to make it clear that there is a distinction between the network and the journalists who work in the network,” said Fahmy, describing the re-trial defence strategy.

Clooney took on Fahmy’s case, she said, when she “realised what was at stake, because Egypt is a leader in the region… It sets a precedent.”

Doucet praised her dedication to the cause: “We want to recognise all lawyers who fight for journalists, and we need more.”

Clooney continued: “Elements of the [Egyptian] government… sought to bring about justice. Belatedly, but they finally did do. The work that lawyers and journalists and human rights activists have to do is to make sure they’re pushing those elements of the government that are a force for good.”

Both Fahmy and Clooney praised the media’s essential role in the campaign for his freedom. “Social media was so important in this case,” Fahmy said, mentioning the #FreeAJStaff Twitter hashtag. “It does make a huge difference… This collective effort is why I’m here today.”

Optimism remains key to both Fahmy and his lawyer’s ongoing fight for press freedom. “There are signs of positive development in Egypt… but there’s a long way to go,” Fahmy said.

A new press charter to which he contributed will shortly be presented to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in the hope that journalists will consequently be able to work more freely in Egypt.

Clooney echoed this positive sentiment: “Hopefully this pardon means at the highest level there may be some change in approach.”

Clooney concluded the discussion with a few words on Fahmy‘s long-awaited freedom: “Today, we can take a moment to celebrate what’s happened to this journalist.”

“I’m here,” Fahmy replied, “because I have two very powerful women who are behind me,” thanking Clooney and his wife Marwa Omara.

Fahmy and his wife will shortly return to Canada, where he will take up a visiting post at the University of British Columbia and “continue to fight and use the spotlight” on behalf of the “many more behind bars” across the globe.

More information on the Fahmy Foundation – and their work in campaigning for the release of unlawfully imprisoned journalists, including Egyptian photojournalist Shawkan and Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – can be found here.