CAIRO – In what appears to be an escalating effort to curtail press freedoms in Egypt, prosecutors have referred 20 journalists working for the news channel Al Jazeera, four of them foreigners, to trial on charges of aiding or joining a terrorist group.
The charges, made public Wednesday, seemingly criminalize routine journalistic activities such as interviewing supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has been designated by the military-backed government as a terrorist organization.
The case marks the first time that journalists have been referred to trial under Egypt’s interim administration on charges related to terrorism. The list of defendants and the full charges against them were not released, but the accused include three journalists with Al Jazeera’s English-language broadcast who have been detained since Dec. 29.
They are Peter Greste, an Australian; Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian with Canadian citizenship who has been serving as the channel’s Cairo bureau chief; and Baher Mohamed, a producer. Al Jazeera has demanded their release.
The prosecutors’ statement accuses the journalists, including a Dutch citizen and two Britons, of making false statements that benefited a terrorist group.
No trial date has been set. The charges could carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
The statement said eight of the 20 were already in custody. It was unclear whether any of the others were in the country. Authorities have said the three employees of the English-language broadcast were working without proper credentials.
The arrests have drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and press freedom organizations.
The prosecutors’ statement accuses the journalists of manipulating images to give the impression of a civil war in Egypt. The country has been beset by large-scale unrest since the army’s ousting of Morsi in July, following a massive uprising against his rule.
Clashes between security forces and opponents of the government killed more than 60 people Saturday, the third anniversary of the beginning of the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi, together with most leaders of the Brotherhood, is in jail and facing an array of charges. Thousands of supporters of the movement have been imprisoned, and hundreds were killed in August when police and soldiers violently broke up sit-in protests in Cairo and elsewhere.
Al Jazeera’s Egyptian affiliate was banned from broadcasting last year, but the channel’s broadcasts originating in Qatar can be seen in Egypt.