Opinion: Speak up for those who are silenced

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Mohamed Fahmy -

The word "press" used to be a token of protection. Now it’s become a target.

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IN­SPIRED BY VIKTOR FRANKL Dur­ing the 438 days that Mohamed Fahmy spent as a pris­oner in Egypt, he drew strength from the words of Viktor Frankl, a sur­vivor of the Nazis’ Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp. “Free­dom is not the last word,” Frankl wrote. “Free­dom is only part of the story and half of the truth.” In a tele­phone in­ter­view with the Ge­or­gia Straight, Fahmy, an Egyp­tian-cana­dian jour­nal­ist and teacher who lives in Van­cou­ver, said the same words have con­tin­ued to drive him since his re­lease, in Septem­ber 2015. “When you are in­side a cell, sleep­ing on the floor, with no ac­cess to the In­ter­net or com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and when you don’t know what time it is…” he said, trail­ing off. “So what do you do with this free­dom? Viktor Frankl says if you go and sit on the beach and do not make use and do not turn this suf­fer­ing into an achieve­ment, then your de­ten­tion be­comes ar­bi­trary, in ev­ery sense of the word. So I felt like it’s a re­spon­si­bil­ity.” When Fahmy and his wife, Marwa Omara, landed at Van­cou­ver In­ter­na­tional Air­port, “I im­me­di­ately went to work,” Fahmy told the Straight. One year later, the re­sult is The Mar­riott Cell: An Epic Jour­ney From Cairo’s Scor­pion Prison to Free­dom, which Fahmy wrote with Van­cou­ver au­thor Carol Shaben. It be­gins with a thrilling ac­count of Fahmy’s re­port­ing on the Arab Spring as it played out on the streets of Cairo. The book takes its ti­tle from the events of De­cem­ber 29, 2013. Af­ter just three months as the Egypt bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, Fahmy and two col­leagues, Peter Greste and Ba­her Mohamed, were work­ing out of a room at the Cairo Mar­riott Ho­tel. Po­lice rushed in and the trio was ac­cused of be­long­ing to the Mus­lim Brother­hood, which had very re­cently been deemed a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion by the new govern­ment of Gen. Ab­del Fat­tah el-sisi. From the ho­tel, they were taken to Scor­pion Prison, nick­named “the Ceme­tery”, and Fahmy’s old life came to an end. The Mar­riott Cell re­counts Fahmy’s far­ci­cal trial and time in prison against the back­drop of Egypt’s sad de­scent from rev­o­lu­tion­ary democ­racy to thinly veiled dic­ta­tor­ship. It also lays bare bru­tal mis­takes made by Al Jazeera that likely com­pounded the sever­ity of Fahmy’s sit­u­a­tion, as well as the fail­ure of the Cana­dian govern­ment to help to se­cure his re­lease. “It’s al­most like a how-to for oth­ers who get stuck in a sit­u­a­tion like that,” Fahmy said of the book. “I hope I can in­spire peo­ple, be­cause I’ve been in­spired by so many.” There are a thou­sand ques­tions to ask about what it was like fac­ing an un­just ju­di­cial sys­tem and liv­ing in prison along­side both mur­der­ous ex­trem­ists and top mem­bers of Egypt’s de­posed po­lit­i­cal classes who were im­pris­oned fol­low­ing Sisi’s July 2013 coup. But the night be­fore Fahmy’s in­ter­view with the Straight, Amer­ica elected Don­ald Trump pres­i­dent of the United States. Dur­ing the Repub­li­can can­di­date’s divi­sive cam­paign, he rou­tinely at­tacked jour­nal­ists, threat­ened to sue me­dia out­lets, and en­cour­aged sup­port­ers to ex­press hos­til­ity to­ward re­porters cov­er­ing his ral­lies. Asked what a Trump pres­i­dency will mean for press free­dom, Fahmy strug­gled to re­main op­ti­mistic. “If this is how he ac­tu­ally deals with the press and if this is the deroga­tory ap­proach he is go­ing to use in deal­ing with the press, then we’re in big trou­ble,” he said. “Af­ter he won, I had these feel­ings of help­less­ness sim­i­lar to the feel­ings I felt when Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Mus­lim Brother­hood, when he won the elec­tions in 2012 in Egypt. But this is worse be­cause Don­ald Trump is leader of the most pow­er­ful na­tion of the free world and his de­ci­sions af­fect ev­ery cor­ner of the world. So I am still in a state of shock.” Fahmy pre­dicted that the im­pli­ca­tions will ex­tend well be­yond the bor­ders of the United States. “We are wit­ness­ing to­day a more dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ment for jour­nal­ism,” he ex­plained. “There is no neu­tral ground. We are be­ing tar­geted by op­pres­sive gov­ern­ments and ex­trem­ist groups.” Out­lets there­fore need to do a bet­ter job pro­tect­ing their re­porters, he ar­gued. This is where the sec­ond half of Viktor Frankl’s quote re­fuses to let him sit idle, Fahmy said. Af­ter Fahmy was let down by Al Jazeera English, Egypt, and Canada, he and his part­ner also found time dur­ing their first year in Van­cou­ver to cre­ate the Fahmy Foun­da­tion, a non­profit ded­i­cated to press free­dom that works for the re­lease of jour­nal­ists im­pris­oned around the world. Closer to home, Fahmy is lob­by­ing Ot­tawa to adopt some­thing he’s called the Pro­tec­tion Char­ter. Among other pro­vi­sions, it would en­shrine into law an obli­ga­tion to in­ter­vene when a Cana­dian cit­i­zen is de­tained abroad. Fahmy also re­vealed he’s anx­ious to get back to his first pas­sion. “I am hop­ing that I can start work­ing in the new year, ei­ther here in Canada or in the Mid­dle East, rep­re­sent­ing a Cana­dian agency,” he said. “I am itch­ing to head right back into jour­nal­ism.”

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