10 years in prison for objective reporting, a sentence designed to destroy Egyptian reporter Baher Ghorab’s entire life. But his fellow journalists refused to let his story die, and their unrelenting reports ultimately secured his release. After enduring the horror of 438 long days behind bars, Ghorab emerged with renewed respect for the role of journalists in the ongoing fight for freedom of the press. Read More
Freed after 438 days: Worldwide reporting about his case saved Egyptian journalist Baher Ghorab from nine more years in jail.
People choose to become journalists for a variety of reasons – some hope to change the world, while others just love to write. Some discover their passion later in life, and others dream of becoming journalists even as children. But regardless of why they chose the field, there is one quality all journalists share whether they are breaking an investigative story or writing about the best plants for your balcony: they want to be heard.
Sometimes, though, you achieve fame not for the stories you write, but by becoming the story yourself. Such was the case for Baher Ghorab. His name became a rallying cry for journalists around the world for his treatment as a journalist, a fate they could easily have shared. Even Barack Obama and Ban Ki-Moon were inspired to intervene on his behalf.
In 2013, the Egyptian journalist was arrested on political grounds and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Though not one single shred of proof of his guilt was presented, he spent more than an entire year behind bars. Then, in unexpected twist, a pardon from the very top secured his release. Baher is convinced the media were his saving grace. Today, he has made it his mission as a journalist to honor and report on all his fellow journalists suffering the same fate. His message couldn’t be more relevant, given the recent attacks on freedom of the press happening in many countries today. Such as in Turkey, where journalists the government deems offensive are locked away for months, completely cut off from the outside world with no proper trial.
Baher is convinced the media were his saving grace.
Dreams of a free country
Even as child, Baher knew he was destined to be a journalist. “I had family members who were journalists bring us toys. It looked like they travelled a lot and saw different countries. So these were my motivations: to travel, to meet people, to know more about people, to help people.” When a Japanese media company hired Baher to report on political developments in the Near East and North Africa, it was a dream come true.
The protests that would go down in history as the Arab Spring broke out in Egypt just a few years later. What began in Tunisia soon spread to most North African and Near Eastern countries, from Morocco to Jordan. Protests soon morphed into uprisings and rebellions, as thousands took to the streets to demand more freedom and protest the autocratic governments and systems in their homelands. Tunisians toppled reigning President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and Egyptians ousted President Hosni Mubarak. It was an exciting time for Baher: “It started in 2008, when a group of people calling themselves ‘April 6’ decided to hold a strike all over Egypt to demand labour rights. They were all youths, and it was beautiful to see young people working together and fighting for labour rights. Later on, this group was a key player in organising the revolution that started in 2011.”
Mass demonstrations took place at the end of January 2011. People gathered by the thousands in Tahrir Square in central Cairo to demand President Mubarak’s resignation. And they stayed until he was actually relieved of his office on February 11, 2011. Suddenly it felt like anything was possible.
“You could feel the pride of every single one of them, taking care of each other, being peaceful and united.”
“People had broken this wall of fear, they had said ‘no’ in a very loud voice. We had lived under Mubarak for over 30 years. We had spent too much time without rights and with corruption everywhere; elections were rigged, people were detained – it was time for change. And it was amazing to now see all the people sitting together, from all walks of life, from different groups. Some provided food, some offered shelter; doctors opened field hospitals for the injured. You could feel the pride of every single one of them, taking care of each other, being peaceful and united. Over 800 Egyptians died during those days because they believed in a better future.”
It was a heady time, and Baher was not immune to the euphoria: “As an Egyptian, I felt very proud, and as a journalist, I felt that I had to report on everything. I wanted to document every small detail, because this was history in the making.” Baher settled into Tahrir Square to report live on the events as they unfolded for his Japanese employer. He didn’t return home for a full 18 days– from the first protest on January 25 until Mubarak was ousted on February 11. “Sometimes there were shootings in the square, but I took the risk – I felt that people needed to know what was going on. The problem was that most of the local media were controlled by the state and reporting false news. So I kept doing my job very professionally. My boss used to tell me that I should rest, but I said no, there are major things happening. This is not the time to rest.”
“Sometimes there were shootings in the square, but I took the risk – I felt that people needed to know what was going on.”
Two years later, in May 2013, Baher switched jobs and began reporting for Al-Jazeera English on events in Cairo – a huge career move for a still very young journalist. A lot had happened in the interim: Mohamed Morsi was elected president in the first free elections held in 2012, and violent protest had again broken out, this time against the new ruler. Baher reported critically on the events as they unfolded. Then there was military coup in July 2013. Morsi was run out of office and the military appointed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Field Marshal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the country’s new leader.
Baher didn’t know it then, but he only had another 5 months of freedom left.
10 years behind bars for no reason
In December 2013, uniformed men knocked on Baher’s door and took him away. Together with two other journalists from Al-Jazeera English, he was detained and accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news. The subsequent trial was a farce: “The prosecutor didn’t provide a shred of evidence. We told the judge ‘please, give us the evidence, so we can prove that we’re not guilty.’ It is impossible to prove a negative. How can I prove that I didn’t do any wrong?” They were never given the chance though, and Baher was sentenced to ten years in prison. His colleagues Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison each, while Baher received an additional three years for possessing ammunition, which amounted to one spent bullet casing he had found on the ground during a protest.
“It is impossible to prove a negative. How can I prove that I didn’t do any wrong?”
So began a period of suffering so unbelievable that it seemed absurd. “I wasn’t physically tortured, but mentally,” Baher says today. His wife was pregnant at the time, and it was soon clear that he would not be present at the birth. “For me, this was torture: Putting a person in prison without a single reason. Putting three men in a small cell, preventing us from seeing our families or a prosecutor. Keeping me in prison for 438 days, leaving my wife pregnant, and not allowing me to be present at my son’s birth. I was even put in solitary confinement for over two months, where I didn’t see the sun at all.”
And still the most important question went unanswered: why? “When I was detained, the advisor of former president Morsi told us that ‘you are very objective in an annoying way’. I said thank you, that’s a compliment – that’s what makes a journalist proud.” The real reason has never been revealed to this day. Since the arrests came at the height of a diplomatic spat between Egypt and Qatar, the journalists assume that they may have been used as pawns in a greater political game.
“I was very disappointed by the justice system,” Baher says. “I had learned that the prosecutor is the lawyer of the people, but I realised that it was totally the opposite. This situation seriously damages society. It protects those who are corrupt and those who abuse our rights as human beings. What really hurt was being treated this badly in my own country. My country is supposed to protect me! The guards even told me I was lucky, because I was supported by foreigners.”
This support from abroad may have ultimately saved Baher. Reports from all over the world closely followed his situation with increasing incredulity. Baher’s fellow suffers were foreign nationals – Peter Greste is from Australia and Mohamed Fahmy holds a Canadian passport – and their detention represented a new height of oppression for Egypt.
#FreeAJStaff: Campaign by Baher's AJ colleagues
Baher’s Egyptian colleagues refused to be cowed though, and reported on their imprisonment as much and as often as they could. “That was the moment I realised that every single journalist is an advocate for press freedom. My fellow journalists did an amazing job. They came to my wife’s house to interview her, and reporters from Germany, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Somalia, Indonesia, almost everywhere, reacted and started calling for press freedom. That finally helped, and was also the reason Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon, all these people who never knew me, started talking about our case. This put a lot of pressure on the Egyptian government to release us.”
International media reported on the tremendous diplomatic pressure Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was under, as Western governments repeatedly condemned the trial. All this took place at a critical juncture when the Egyptian president was trying to re-establish the country as an accepted world player.
“Every single journalist is an advocate for press freedom.”
Then a miracle occurred. A rumor began making the rounds of the prison: “Baher, you got a pardon.” A guard confirmed the rumor, as did a report Baher saw on TV. He and Mohamed Fahmy had been pardoned by Egypt’s highest court, who called the earlier convictions against them 'hasty’. Peter Greste had already been allowed to return to his native Australia. Mohamed Fahmy was forced to pay a fine, and Baher was released. “Later on they asked me to thank Sisi, the Egyptian president, for pardoning me. But he was the one who wrongfully put me in prison in the first place!” Baher was finally able to hold his youngest son in his arms.
Fighting for the right to press freedom
Today Baher and his family live in Dubai where he continues to report on Egypt and the Middle East for Al-Jazeera. “I will continue reporting on Egypt, because if I don’t, the cheater who put me into prison will have won. There’s a huge problem in Egypt: government and business-owned TV channels are spreading propaganda. But I still believe that there’s hope that the people will say ‘no’ again. They did it once, so it can happen again. It is important to show the other side of the story.”
Baher has also taken on another mission: “There are still over 100 Egyptian journalists in jail and close friends of mine are political detainees.” From his own experience, he knows how important it is to keep advocating for them and not abandon them to their fate. “I think it is my duty, and the duty of my two other colleagues, that we pass on the support we received and help those inside and outside Egypt who are still detained. They need help. I remember one sentence that other detainees repeatedly said to us in jail: ‘You have Al Jazeera supporting you, but we don’t have anybody to help.’ That really hurts. It’s not just about us; it’s about every single journalist.”
Baher experienced first-hand how much courageous, critical reporting can achieve. And he remains convinced that the media play a key role in the fight for freedom of the press, and that he and his fellow reporters have to keep up the good fight on the front lines.