The Blog

The UK Has Condemned Egypt's Al Jazeera Journalist's Sentencings - But Not Loudly Enough

The UK government's response to the outrageous three year sentences handed down to three journalists in Egypt has been similar to the response of the USA and other democratic, liberal and developed countries: minimal. Search far enough and you will see that our government has, in some way, condemned this blatant repression of free speech. The British Ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, put out a statement saying (this quote is the nearest he gets to outright criticism), "I am shocked and concerned by the sentences issued by the Court today... I am concerned that today's ruling will undermine confidence in the basis of Egypt's stability, both in Egypt and abroad". If you can find mainstream media coverage of this, I would love to see it. It would also be interesting to see the media reporting that, for these comments, Casson was summoned by Egypt's foreign ministry in Cairo - presumably for a telling off - as they were an "unacceptable interference" in their legal process.

If you look hard enough, you will find that the USA has also condemned the sentencings. The State Department said they are "deeply disappointed and concerned" about the ruling and also highlighted the importance of free speech "The freedom of the press to investigate, report, and comment - even when its perspective is unpopular or disputed - is fundamental to any free society and essential to democratic development".

It is good that these statements have been issued, of course. However, as is typical with this type of case, they are just standard protocol and thus, unfortunately, fairly meaningless. If the UK really wanted to oppose this type of injustice (which, as a liberal democracy which prides itself on freedom of speech we should) then it needs to be done from a much higher platform. We don't have to try to be international police and tell other countries what to do, but as we hold the principles of free speech and freedom of press to be right then we have to reject, and make it clear that we reject, any breach of them. So when something like this comes up we need to tell everyone that this is wrong and why this is wrong from the highest level of government.

Unfortunately there are countless cases similar to this is many different countries. This one is special in that it has received a relatively disproportionate amount of media coverage compared to other instances of governments imprisoning journalists who they see as being critical or threatening towards their regime. Why? Because there are foreigners involved, or more significantly Western foreigners. Peter Greste, from Australia, was deported earlier this year and was trailed in absentia. His involvement has created the high publicity the case has received. This is, in part, a good thing; it is a disgrace to democracy in Egypt and everyone is aware of that. However it also highlights the unwillingness of the West (governments and media) to get involved when it is just a domestic issue. We should challenge breaches of freedom and human rights in every case. Of course, this is by no means a new phenomenon - but this blatant hypocrisy from our government and media can't continue to go unchallenged.

It's no surprise that our governments like to keep quiet about things such as this; they must attempt to strike a balance between standing up for our values abroad and keeping on the good side of unstable regimes (many of which are allies). And it is true that, in some cases, you have to work with the regime, however wrong and unjust their policies are, as this is the only way you can influence them. Despite this, there are times, such as the case in Egypt, where the West should be completely united in condemning the actions of a country which clearly violate our principles of freedom of speech, freedom of press and democracy.