* Egypt crackdown worries foreign reporters
* Jingoistic message makes conditions tougher
* Western diplomats see rising repression
(Adds army spokesman comment)
By Michael Georgy
CAIRO, Jan 30 When Hosni Mubarak was in power, a
foreign journalist could spend unlimited time with members of
the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, who roundly condemned the
These days the same conversation can land reporters in court
on charges of aiding a terrorist group, a sign of where the
country is headed three years after a popular uprising raised
hopes of greater freedom.
The public prosecutor said on Wednesday that Egypt would put
an Australian, two Britons and a Dutchwoman working for Al
Jazeera on trial for aiding 16 Egyptians belonging to a
"terrorist organisation", a reference to the Brotherhood.
Simply interacting with the Brotherhood may earn them prison
sentences in Egypt, a major recipient of U.S. aid.
Egypt has cracked down on dissent since the army toppled the
Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi, the country's first freely
elected president, in July after mass protests against him.
Security forces subsequently killed nearly 1,000 Islamists
in the streets, arrested thousands of others, put Brotherhood
leaders on trial and declared them terrorists.
The Brotherhood says it is a peaceful movement.
The measures against the al Jazeera reporters alarmed
Western diplomats and human rights groups, who say the
army-backed government wants to crush what little freedoms are
Al Jazeera is one of the only Arab news organisations
operating here that is critical of the Egyptian government.
An Al Jazeera spokesman said the allegations against its
journalists were "absurd, baseless and false" and a challenge to
Asked to comment on the plight of foreign journalists in
light of the Al Jazeera case, army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali
said: "This is a case related to a channel that has breached the
law and this is in the realm of the Egyptian judiciary not the
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United
States was "deeply concerned about the ongoing lack of freedom
of expression and press freedom in Egypt" and urged the
government to reconsider trying the journalists.
"Any journalist, regardless of affiliation, must not be
targets of violence, intimidation or politicized legal action.
They must be protected and permitted to freely do their jobs in
What is worrying, some Western diplomats say, is that
powerful hawks in the Interior Ministry and even the judiciary
believe their own "you are either with us or against us"
narrative, and so do many Egyptians.
That is making conditions tougher for foreign journalists,
portrayed as part of a plot designed to ruin Egypt's image.
Following the move against al Jazeera, foreign reporters
asked whether interviewing Brotherhood members was now a crime.
The State Information Service said it would protect press
freedoms and it was not illegal to interview any group as long
as this did not involve incitement.
One Western reporter -- who was followed and received
telephoned death threats from people who said "you sided with
the Muslim Brotherhood against the people" -- says caution
levels will go up after the Al Jazeera court case.
For their part, the Al Jazeera journalists were working for
a channel owned by Qatar, a Gulf Arab state which supported the
Brotherhood and which has difficult relations with the present
In a statement, the prosecutor said the four had published
"lies" that harmed the national interest and had supplied money,
equipment and information to the 16 Egyptians. The foreigners
were also accused of using unlicensed broadcasting equipment.
Al Jazeera's Cairo offices have been closed since July 3
when security forces raided them after the army ousted Mursi.
Some Egyptian media have referred to the Al Jazeera
journalists in a term with sinister overtones -- "The Marriott
Cell" -- because they worked from that Cairo hotel.
The charges against them are also symptomatic of what
critics say is political malaise that has been spreading since
army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unveiled a
political road map after the takeover.
Sisi, who is expected to announce his candidacy for the
presidency soon, promised Egyptians free and fair elections on
the path to democracy.
"The writing on the wall is clear. The Egyptian government
has decided that it will no longer tolerate any independent
journalism that they deem is not the spin they want to see,"
said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
Al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militant groups based in the
Sinai Peninsula have stepped up attacks on security forces since
Mursi's overthrow. An Islamist insurgency has spread to mainland
areas, with more and more high-profile targets under attack.
At one of Mursi's trials this week, jingoistic sentiment was
palpable. Two young girls walked outside the court holding army
boots on their heads in a gesture of support for the military.
In the 1990s, a more destructive Islamist insurgency raged
in Egypt, but a foreign journalist who worked in the country at
the time said he never thought he could face trial for
interviewing the Brotherhood or other Islamist militants.
"Freelance journalists could wander around even without
official permission. The most they would get is 'naughty,
naughty' from the police who would tell them to get
accreditation," said H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert and fellow at
the American think-tank the Brookings Institution.
"Not now. I would not recommend interviewing someone from
the Brotherhood. Foreign journalists are suspects until proven
(Editing by Giles Elgood)