It's been just over a year since award-winning journalist Mohamed Fahmy returned to Canada from nearly two years of incarceration in an Egyptian prison.
His "crime" was practicing journalism when Egypt was in the midst of a tumultuous revolution. Egyptian authorities arrested and locked up Fahmy, a Canadian, in December 2013 along with other journalists who were accused of conspiring with terrorists to fabricate news in their coverage of the Egyptian revolution. He was finally freed and allowed to return home in 2015.
With the release of his new book, The Marriott Cell, Fahmy brought his story to Ottawa last week as part of his efforts to get the Canadian government to fix loopholes that he says put Canada's citizens at risk abroad. He advocates legislative changes that would make it mandatory for the federal government to fight for the release of Canadians detained abroad.
Fahmy also had a pointed message about the implications of Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election.
Dictators likely celebrating Trump's victory, Fahmy says
In an interview with National Observer, Fahmy said that dictators are getting excited about a Trump presidency because the businessman has taken stances that align with the views of authoritarian leaders who want to silence free speech and democracy.
"I think his victory is being celebrated by many of these dictators and oppressive leaders who have no respect for human rights or freedom of expression and who sideline human rights and place their own interests first," Fahmy said in an interview with National Observer.
He said it amounts to the biggest threat to human rights and free speech in a generation, driven by dictators who are exploiting the war on terror to target journalists.
"They’re giving themselves the license to kill journalists and human rights defenders," Fahmy said. "If we don't have a collective approach to fight this, we will see more journalists be killed and detained and that’s not acceptable.”
Fahmy, who was part of a CNN team that won a Peabody Award in 2011 for its coverage of the Arab Spring, has spent years covering the Middle East for a variety of outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera and the BBC.
In the interview, Fahmy recounted some of his recent experiences and research findings. He says he uncovered some startling details about his former employer, Al Jazeera, through an interview with a former official who explained how its editorial decisions had been influenced by its owner, the government of Qatar.
He also slammed Canadian authorities for allowing recent attacks on press freedoms to occur at home, including efforts by the RCMP to seize notes of Vice Canada journalist Ben Makuch, as well as Quebec police surveillance of journalists to identify their sources.
Fahmy said cases like these will make it difficult for Canada to fight for press freedoms and defend Canadian journalists who are detained by authoritarian regimes. He said these practices would allow the foreign governments to be able to argue that their policies are no different from what the Canadian government allows at home.
"This is a very unfortunate situation and the governments in the Middle East and all over the world, they monitor very closely what happens here, and they know what’s going on. So, it’s definitely going to affect the safety of our fellow citizens abroad," said Fahmy, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia.
He added that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should press for the creation of a special United Nations envoy who has a mandate to fight for the safety of journalists around the world.
Interview with Mohamed Fahmy
The following is an edited transcript of National Observer's interview with the decorated journalist, who has created a foundation to champion free speech and press freedom.
Q: What are some of the most important revelations in your book that you believe the public needs to know?
This book is my journalistic project in the sense that after my release, I contacted many of the key players involved with the case to shed light on the trial, the terrorism dominating our headlines, Al Jazeera's negligence and diplomats who worked on my case for several purposes. One, to understand more about what happened when I was incarcerated and what contributed to my conviction, and more about the ongoing geopolitical rifts between some of the Arab countries and Egypt and Qatar — the owner of Al Jazeera — and why we (journalists) were used as scapegoats to score settle the vendetta between these countries. But also, back here in Canada. I noticed that many people were angry at me and critical of the fact that I criticized Mr. Harper’s government. In this book, there is clear research and validation that explains why I took this stance with Mr. Harper’s government when I came back. I said that they betrayed me and I said they could have done better.
Also, in the prison, I lived with extremists who have fought in Syria and Libya and Egypt. And when you live with these guys, you hear so much about the ideas of why they do what they do. And when I went out, I interviewed Zaina bin Laden, (wife of Osama bin Laden's eldest son) and I asked her about Hamza bin Laden’s most recent audio recordings. He was the youngest son of bin Laden and he had released recordings calling on Jihadis to join the fight in Syria, to avenge the death of his father, and to attack westerners and kill Canadians, and Australians, and Americans and so on.
Anyone who is going to pick up this book will also understand the differences between ISIS and al Qaida, why they are fighting against each other, what they want. (Abu Muhammad) al-Adnani, spokesman of ISIS, released an audio message (calling for attacks) when I was in prison. Two weeks later, there were two attacks in Canada — one in Montreal against two police officers, and one in Ottawa that killed Nathan Cirillo. And he specifically mentions Canada by name (in his message) when he called on his disciples to attack them using rocks, using any means, basically because of Canada’s participation in the coalition against ISIS. So, this book is not just a retelling of the story, but it’s a book filled with first-hand research that I’ve conducted.
On another Canadian angle as well, I’ve been trying to improve consular services and how the government intervenes. And we still have the same problem today with the Trudeau government. It’s not just a Harper government issue. There is a loophole in the legislation in Canada. I’ve worked with Amnesty International on a charter and I talk about this charter in the book. I introduced it to the Liberal government. The most important aspect of this charter is that Canada does not have a law binding it to intervene when a Canadian is detained abroad. It’s up to the discretion of the government.
While the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Brazil, Mexico and a number of other countries have it written in stone in legislation. So that was an eye-opening revelation when I got out of prison.
Q: Have you been able to meet with a minister or minister’s office on this topic and can you tell me what the early reception has been from the government to your proposal?
I mention in the book that I partnered with Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International. We met with (Global Affairs Minister Stéphane) Dion. I also met with Mr. Trudeau. They were very responsive. I got a letter from Mr. Trudeau’s office acknowledging it and I met members of consular affairs in Ottawa. And we’re hearing that they're going to issue a new consular review soon. I don't know if that’s going to (result) in a law, but that’s my goal. And if it doesn't include that (new law), we will try to introduce it as a private member’s bill and we are currently researching what that entails.
Q: If I can move on to some current affairs, on the issue of police surveillance of journalists. What do you think about recent reports from Quebec that this is happening here?
I was shocked when I learned that police had spied on journalists' phones using a court order enabling them to do so. And I was also shocked again when (journalist) Ben Makuch from Vice had to submit his notes after conducting an interview using the Kik Messenger app with a Calgary man, an alleged ISIS fighter who had travelled to join the Jihad in the Middle East. For me, this sounded like there were real parallels with what I had been through in Egypt. Because the court had accessed my audio interviews on my phone that I had conducted with Mohammed al-Zawahir (brother of the head of Al Qaeda) for CNN and they had used it against me in court.
When I hear that this is happening in Canada, it freaks me out because how will oppressive governments — who are undemocratic in many ways and don’t respect press freedoms - respond when Canada intervenes to free one of its fellow citizens abroad, and releases statements calling on them to respect press freedoms, human rights and democracy, when they’re doing very similar breaches of our Charter of Rights here in Canada. It’s appalling.
Yesterday (Nov. 16, 2016), we had a news conference with Ben Makuch, Patrick Lagacé (from La Presse) and Tom Henheffer from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. I appealed directly to Mr. Trudeau… I hope that he supports my fellow journalists in Canada in what seems to be a very similar situation (to what I went through) and it’s incredibly horrifying that now we have to worry about our metadata as journalists. In the case of Patrick Lagacé, for example, even if he encrypted his emails, they’re accessing the phone numbers of the people he’s speaking to — his sources. So he has no way of protecting them. It’s not even about the content of what’s in the messages. They’re basically getting to his sources and they know who he’s talking to and that’s very dangerous because (as journalists) our sources (if they are afraid the police is watching) won’t believe us any more or open up to us or allow us to do our work.
Q: So in a situation like your case, if this news about Canadian police spying on journalists had come out at that time or before, is it something that could have harmed or made it difficult for Canada to fight to free you?
I believe it would have (given) a face-saving exit for some of the Egyptian officials. A lot of these meetings and interventions happen behind close doors. So can you imagine if a minister from Canada is speaking to an Egyptian minister, for example, and telling him to free Fahmy and (saying) he’s a journalist and should not have been (imprisoned) in this situation? It’s (giving) a very easy rebuttal (to the other country). And we’re speaking hypothetically here, but the minister from Egypt, could have easily told him: ‘Well look, you’re doing the same thing in Canada. Look at the case of Patrick Lagacé or Ben Makuch, who is now forced to give his notes and if he doesn't, he will go to prison. And Ben Makuch, who is a friend, has stated that he refused to give his notes to the RCMP. He lost his appeal and he’s appealing again and his case is on Feb. 17.
And I asked him, are you ever going to give these notes? He said said no I won’t. And that means he would end up in jail. So he’s on the right side of history. He’s making a point for all of us as journalists. And that means, he could end up in prison.
So this is a very unfortunate situation and the governments in the Middle East and all over the world, they monitor very closely what happens here and they know what’s going on so it’s definitely going to affect the safety of our fellow citizens abroad.
Q: What do you think the election of Donald Trump means for journalists in North America?
Well I know many journalists who work at the Pentagon and who work at the White House and who are really close friends of mine and they’re terrified, basically. They’re very angry that this happened and (concerned about) the way he speaks in a very derogatory way, when he speaks about journalists.
His attitude is sort of aligned to many of the attitudes of the dictators in the Middle East who are basically throwing journalists into prison… It’s just unhealthy when the leader of the most powerful country in the world is talking so aggressively about journalists and their noble role. It affects the journalism community worldwide.
And unfortunately, many of the leaders of autocratic, oppressive countries are aligned with Donald Trump’s vision... For example, he has indicated in subtle ways that he would brand the Muslim Brotherhood Organization as a terrorist group. And that totally falls in line with the strategy of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia. They all designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and I think he’s going to do the same thing and that’s why they’re all very excited about that.
And another reason of course, is his stance against Iran. He’s taking a very aggressive stance against Iran that also falls perfectly into their agenda, because there is of course the underreported Shia vs Sunni ... proxy wars going on in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, so I think his victory is being celebrated by many of these dictators and oppressive leaders who have no respect for human rights or freedom of expression and who sideline human rights and place their own interests first.
Q: What else would you like people to know about your book?
I also interviewed the former spokesman of the state of Qatar who is exiled in London and he’s like the black box of that country. He’s one of the founding members of Al Jazeera and he has incredible revelations and he speaks on the record for the first time and he basically said that Al-Jazeera, during his time in office, they were giving direct editorial orders to the network from the palace. And he states that Hamad bin Jassim, the former prime minister of Qatar was the engineer of a lot of the Arab spring coverage and he’s one of the main reasons why the region has fallen into pieces and to get this guy on record I had to fly to London to meet him. It’s interesting because he’s suing Hamad bin Jassim and he’s very angry at him.
Zaina bin Laden was very interesting. And she says that she feels that Hamza bin Laden was… being manipulated by the leader of Al Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri... I also speak about Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who established a free liberal website and he’s now being flogged 50 times and sentenced to 10 years, and the Canadian government is trying to help, but they’re not allowing him out even though he has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
There’s a lot in the book about the fight for freedom of expression, the hope that Canada supports the cause of many NGOs including mine and Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression. I travelled to Geneva and met (Canada's) UN ambassador and I spoke at the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council calling on the UN to appoint a special envoy to focus on the safety of journalists worldwide and we’re calling on Mr. Trudeau to endorse our requests. My organization is one of 32 others, including Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch and others that are calling for this envoy to handle the specific files of journalists behind bars. And as you know, there are about 200 (reporters in jai) worldwide, including bloggers and citizen journalists; 800 journalists have been killed in the past decade, according to the United Nations. Almost 100 were killed in the past year and a half… This is an unprecedented breach of human rights and freedom of expression. A generation, where leaders are using the war on terror, and turning it into a partial war on journalism. And they’re giving themselves the license to kill journalists and human rights defenders and if we don't have a collective approach to fight this, we will see more journalists be killed and detained and that’s not acceptable.