NOTES FROM A PRISON DIARY
IN HIS FIRST PUBLIC APPEARANCE SINCE HIS ACQUITTAL LATE LAST YEAR, JOURNALIST BAHER MOHAMED ADDRESSED A GATHERING OF STUDENTS, FACULTY AND GENERAL PUBLIC AT GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY IN QATAR, SHARING HIS EXPERIENCES OF HIS IMPRISONMENT IN EGYPT.
In his first public appearance since his acquittal late last year, journalist Baher Mohamed addressed a gathering of students, faculty and the general public at Georgetown University in Qatar, sharing his experiences of his imprisonment in Egypt.
How does one retain a semblance of sanity and sense of purpose while being stuck in judicial limbo for 21 months in a country that has a complicated relationship with democracy and freedom of expression? Baher Mohamed notes he was able to make it through by channeling his inner journalist, deciding to stand for something bigger than himself, minimising expectations and having extended conversations with his friend, an onion in a cup.
Mohamed and his Al Jazeera colleagues, Peter Greste and Mohammed Fahmy, were arrested in Egypt in late 2013 on charges of spreading false news and being supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. After two trials, multiple appeals, a sustained social media campaign and mounting international pressure, a presidential pardon brought the sordid affair to an end as suddenly as it had all begun. That one December day in 2013.
“They shot my dog”
“On December 29, security officials came to my place,” Mohamed recounts, standing in front of a packed house mainly of students of journalism and political science. “I remember a colleague had called me a few hours before, asking me to leave home and go into hiding; they were looking for me.” But for him, running away was out of the question. Despite the darkening climate of oppression and silencing of voices against President Abdel Fattah El Sisi's new government, he had faith in his innocence and the due process of the law. And so he waited. “They stormed my house. Shot my dog. Destroyed my home. And – I have to say it – robbed me of my money, camera and other equipment,” he says. As he was being arrested, he could see shock written large over his wife's eyes, over those of his parents' and even in the eyes of his dying
dog who lay bleeding on the floor.
Mohamed was convinced that he would be released in a couple of days. This was almost routine for journalists – the threat of jail being used as a means to push them around – and usually a few days would suffice. And so at the police camp, to which he was taken first, Mohamed was very much in work mode. “There were so many people there who came up to me to share their stories with me. Shocking and horrible realities.” And he listened carefully, trying to memorise every detail of every personal account because “the people had to know.”
The public's inalienable right to know has been the cornerstone of Mohamed's work ethic since his days as a reporter for Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper and a freelancer with other international media organisations. Every risk he takes is fuelled by this belief. The son of a journalist, Mohamed remembers wanting to be a reporter since he was six years old. “Passion for journalism was always part of my life and part of my family's life,” he says. In May of 2013 he joined Al Jazeera, just in time, it seemed, for the June 30 protests that would go on to shake the very foundations of Egyptian politics. For him, Al Jazeera was the Arab answer to the likes of CNN and BBC and he wanted to be a part of it. “At Al Jazeera, if you had a good story to tell, they'd welcome it. My first package for them was about the state of media in Egypt (this is before the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi) and how polarised they were. I am proud of that and every other report I produced there till the day of my arrest.”
Radio shows and rigmarole
The next day, he was subjected to a 12-hour interrogation with a state prosecutor. “I, being a graduate of law, believed that the prosecutor is a lawyer of the people. But it was the opposite and I was being trapped,” he says. The lawyer told Mohamed that he was going to a better place – the notorious Tura or Scorpion Prison, a maximum security facility that is known for housing high-level political prisoners and jihadists. Mohamed and his colleagues spent two months there, awaiting trial. “We slept on cement floors. There was no light and we were kept in the dark all day. There were no visitations, no opportunities to exercise, no good food. While we were never physically harmed (though we kept
hearing stories of others who had been tortured, electrocuted and even killed), these conditions amounted to mental torture,” he recalls. Worse still was the uncertainty surrounding their arrest. What for? Why them? Why now? “One of Morsi's aides, who was a fellow prisoner, told us that we were professional and fair, and that had really annoyed them during their time in office. That made me happy; if we weren't pleasing either side, that meant we were doing a good job. Ultimately I think that was the reason for our arrest.”
In Scorpion, the prisoners were isolated and couldn't speak to one another. So Mohamed was forced to befriend an onion. “He was my only friend and as I spoke to him about the things I was feeling, I learnt that expectations were dangerous and disappointments were crushing. Our brains are beautiful creations – they could either lead you to a wonderland or to the depths of hell. You have to be in control of your brain. Greste was meditating and he helped me learn how to do it. I was living day by day andt rying to enjoy what I had. I sculpted rocks, listening more deeply to the birds outside the prison.” Soon, the journalists came up with other ways to occupy themselves. Incarcerated along with him were members of Morsi's presidential team – former ministers, the speaker of the parliament and senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood; ironically, men that the journalists would have loved to have interviewed in the outside world. “I had so many questions for them,” Mohamed laughs. So he and his colleagues created a mock radio show where he invited different "guests" and grilled them about the issues of the day. “We talked, sang, read poetry, made jokes. The guards once told us that the warden came in often to eavesdrop on the show and he liked it. He even had some questions for us and our guests.” In many ways, Mohamed was in his element. He still had the use of his greatest strength and weapon – his skills in approaching people, making them comfortable and getting their stories. “Working with the Japanese taught me the importance of building relationships. Also I love being in the field and meeting people – from shanty towns to golf courses.”
At their trial, evidence was conspicuous by its absence. “I remember telling the judge, 'Can you please produce any single piece of evidence so we can defend ourselves?' Because it's hard to prove the negative, to prove that you didn't do something.” To everyone's shock, all three were sentenced to seven years in prison and Mohamed was given three extra years for being in possession of a spent bullet casing, a memorabilia from his days of reporting in Libya. He started to realise that this was his chance to stand for something big, a chance which only comes once in a lifetime.
From inside prison, Mohamed and his colleagues would hear news of the growing support and solidarity for their cause. “Initially I thought I was an exaggeration but when I was released on bail I was overwhelmed by the massive support from all over the world. I couldn't believe it,” he says.” I still receive gifts and postcards from people who are glad I am out. I am so thankful to them, to those journalists in Somalia, Pakistan, in war zones sending us wishes and encouragement during this campaign. I am sure this global push is the reason I am free today. Wherever Sisi went, they were talking to him about us and other journalists who were behind bars in Egypt. They were pressuring him about freedom of expression and press freedom. I'd like to thank all the heads of state. I would have never imagined that one day Obama would mention my name,” he laughs. “The United Nations, local and international NGOs, news networks, all sorts of regular people came out in support of us. The issue was no longer about three arrested journalists. It was about press freedom. People understand and know how important it is. Even our competitors united together to stand for us, for freedom of expression. I would have never imagined these global news networks would pause broadcasting and stage silent protests. I would like for this kind of action to continue to free every imprisoned journalist from every country.”
Despite missing the birth of his son while in prison, he says he would do it all again if he had to. “In times like these you get to know who your friends are. I lost many, even a very close friend of mine, because they believed these allegations. But the Free Baher Facebook page was created by a friend who hadn't seen me in five years. I also believe it's worth everything I went through, even not being present for my child's birth, if it means I can help my society, if I can help my son. I want him to live in a country that believes in these principles and I hope I can make that change.” Mohamed believes the awareness his case created was good for Egypt, for its many jailed activists, journalists and thinkers. “Press freedom will be behind bars when journalists are behind bars. We can't have a healthy democratic world without fundamental elements like freedom of expression. And this applies to every country in the world. Why should any country be afraid of letting someone speak?” he asks passionately. “Let your people speak. Let your media work freely.”
BAHER MOHAMED at Georgetown University Qatar
Baher Mohamed speaks on the phone after being dropped off by authorities following his release from prison after being pardoned by President Sisi on September 23.
Jihan Rashid, the wife of Baher Mohamed, poses with one of their children during
an interview by AFP journalists.
Baher Mohamed attends his trial at the Torah prison in Cairo on August 2, 2015.