DOHA An executive of pan-Arab satellite network Al Jazeera said Egypt's arrest of three of its journalists for allegedly assisting a "terrorist organization" shows Cairo is bent on suppressing all views other than its own.
The charges implied the three had had unlawful contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egyptian authorities have banned and sought to crush since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July after mass protests against his rule.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera has described the allegations against Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed - who were detained in their Cairo hotel on December 29 - as "absurd, baseless and false".
Egypt's public prosecutor said last month he would put an Australian, two Britons and a Dutch woman on trial for aiding 16 Egyptians belonging to a "terrorist organization", referring to all as Al Jazeera correspondents. The network told Reuters it had no Dutch or British correspondents in Egypt.
Heather Allan, input manager at Al Jazeera English, said the three might spend up to two years in an Egyptian prison before a court date is set.
While there were strains between Qatar and Egypt over the Muslim Brotherhood, branded by Cairo's military-backed authorities as a terrorist group, the three journalists' situation had more to do with the freedom of the press, Allan told Reuters in an interview at Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters.
"We just happen to be a very convenient target because we are watched widely there; I think we have the most name recognition," she said.
"But they (the government) have also put other journalists from local media in jail ... All other voices are being shut down, no matter what that other opinion is until you are left with just one voice."
The public prosecutor said the accused had published "lies" that harmed the national interest and supplied money, equipment and information to the 16 Egyptians.
The foreigners were also accused of using unlicensed broadcasting equipment, which Allan said included standard gear used by any journalist such as a camera and a notepad.
The Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s and said recently it remains committed to peaceful political change, denying accusations of links to terrorism.
"IT CAN GO ON FOR TWO YEARS"
The Qatari-funded network said another one of its journalists, Abdullah Al Shami, has been in detention for five months. It is not clear what charges he is facing.
Allan said Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were nearing the end of their first 45 days in detention. "After 45 days they will go to another 45 days, and then it can go on for two years in 45-day increments without a court date," she said, without elaborating.
Asked to comment on the plight of foreign journalists in light of the Al Jazeera case, Egyptian army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali said last month: "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 armed forces."
Unlike other Gulf Arab states that fear the Brotherhood and were relieved to see the Egyptian military oust Mursi in July, Qatar remains a strong backer of the Islamist movement.
During the year Mursi was in power, Qatar gave Egypt $7.5 billon and today some of the group's Egyptian members have chosen to take refuge in the wealthy Gulf emirate.
But Allan suggested political relations the two countries were not the main point at issue in the journalists' case. She added that none of Al Jazeera's channels received orders from the Qatari government on how to cover the news.
"This is not really a Qatari government affair; we do not work for the government," she said.
Egypt's fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood since Mursi's removal has widened to include journalists and liberal activists, including ones who played an important role in the popular uprising of 2011 that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Critics accuse the current government of committing the same abuses that Mubarak's security forces engaged in.
Allan said that Al Jazeera had tried repeatedly without success to obtain Egyptian accreditation for a number of its rotating journalists travelling to Cairo. With the three journalists now in jail, the channel had given up on the application process.
"We had people rotating to Egypt and we did try to get accreditation for them and we never got anything back, so we just didn't bother with this lot," she said. But she said the lack of accreditation was no crime and "certainly is not a jailable offence."
Asked if the channel's management was aware of the risks associated with lack of accreditation in Egypt, Allan said: "I mean we always know what we should and shouldn't do. And certainly getting accreditation in Egypt is something you should do, but they stopped issuing it, or make it difficult for you to get (it)... We operate in many countries without accreditation, it's what we do."
(Reporting by Amena Bakr, Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)