Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard reveals the grim realities of covering the trial of Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues. Artwork by Andrew Dyson
I am sitting in a dusty courtroom in Tora Prison, about 40 minutes’ drive from the centre of Cairo. Just metres away, three colleagues inwhite prison uniforms are held in a cage. Their fingers gripping the black metal, they try to see us through the small squares.
We’ve just yelled a cheery hello to them and, as always, they smile and wave back. Our routine feels so familiar now – the Jazeera journalists have been in jail since December 29 and we have been coming to this courtroom since February.
The family members who are in court get as close as they can to the cage and talk quietly with loved ones before the judge arrives. Diplomats – including a team of at least three representatives from the Australian Embassy – mostly sit along the front benches.
There is a long row of prison security between us and the cage – young uniformed men who seem to be barely out of school sitting single file at the end of each row of long wooden benches, bored and smoking.
In the cage next to the journalists is a group of university students, also in prison whites. It’s small compared to other mass trials in Egypt, in which the defendants number in the hundreds, but it is a mass trial nonetheless.
To get into the complex we walk past two tanks – their gun barrels seemingly pointed downwards at us – through one checkpoint and down a 500-metre stretch of dusty road lined with military trucks packed with security police. Everyone is armed, some heavily. Two more security screenings follow. There is a core group of about 10 Cairo-based journalists who make the trek out to Tora Prison for each court session. Beyond the coverage of the trial, it has become an unspoken act of solidarity with three colleagues who are living one of our worst nightmares. We all look at that cage and think: “It could be any one of us in there.”
Back in February, when the trial began, prison security used to make us wait in the dirt and rubbish on the side of the busy multiple-lane road outside the walls of Tora. Huge trucks carrying massive blocks of marble would rumble past in a haze of fumes, the traffic noise forcing us to raise our voices above the din.
Some days we’d wait for hours in the sun, watching dozens of Egyptian families arrive at the gates of Tora. Carrying food, blankets and clothes for their jailed relatives, they’d patiently line up for the security checks before their painfully short weekly visits.
Filthy, with bursting bladders and sunburned faces, we would check our watches and wonder when officials would ever let us into the court. And I would close my eyes and think: “At least I am not in jail.”
It is a mantra I repeat often, every day, when the challenges of living in Egypt – the traffic, the power cuts, the water cuts and the constant sexual harassment – get to me.
One of the least expected and yet most comforting developments to come out of this case is a new sense of solidarity among the foreign press corps in Egypt. Cairo is an enormous beast of a city, sprawling for miles and choked with hours-long traffic jams. There is little chance of just running into colleagues on a story, and there’s open hostility to Western journalists from people on the street, and Egyptian police and security forces.
We share security tips and problems with arrests, street violence and harassment online, but rarely are we all together in the one room. We are connected via our email list, a Facebook page and Twitter, but most of us are constantly on the move inside Egypt or, like me, throughout the Middle East, so face-to face time is limited.
It is here at Tora Prison that we confess, in the shadow of our colleagues’ terrifying predicament, that we have bonded.
Australian Peter Greste, a foreign correspondent for Al Jazeera English, along with his Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, have been charged with endangering national security by doctoring news footage to distort Egypt’s international image and aid a terrorist group (the Muslim Brotherhood). There are 17 others on the charge list, but only these three are in Egypt. They deny all the allegations. It is clear they were simply reporting the news. Every one of us in that courtroom covered the same stories they did over the last 12 months. The massacre of protesters, the security crackdown – at times it has felt as if much of Egypt was crippled by violent mayhem or the threat of it. There was no need to doctor any footage. The craziness was everywhere.
The case itself is devastatingly devoid of all the familiar touchstones of Western justice. There is no clear chain of evidence, which mostly seems totally unrelated to the charges; experts appear to have colluded on their statements and, because the journalists are being tried on terrorism-related charges, there is no option
They have been swept up in a massive, brutal security operation targeting the banned Muslim
Brotherhood organisation, its supporters, academics, unionists, revolutionaries and anyone who does not support Egypt’s return to military rule. And they are victims of the bitter falling out between Egypt, which elected a Muslim Brotherhood president and then 12 months later forced him from government, and Qatar, a country that both owns Al Jazeera and backs the Brotherhood.
There appears there is nothing to be done but follow the court process until its inevitable end.
I watch 49-year-old Greste in the cage – slim, contained and quietly spoken – next to Fahmy, 40, and Mohamed, 30. I think about Greste’s parents, Lois and Juris, back in Australia, running the most extraordinary campaign for their son. I watch Fahmy’s mother watch her son until I have to look away.
The three men are searingly articulate about their case and about media freedom. Their focus in the court is intense and all-consuming. They appear ready for anything. Indeed, when unexpectedly called to address the judge directly, each delivered a perfectly pitched, off-the-cuff appeal for their release.
There is so much at stake – Greste could face seven years in prison if found guilty, while Fahmy and Mohamed face 15 years. There is rarely a moment where this knowledge is not etched deeply on their faces, and those of their loved ones.
Each time there is a break in the court proceedings, we shout to each other through the cage, the long row of wooden benches, lined with officers, between our imprisoned colleagues and us.
In the meantime, we have become close to their families. Fahmy’s calm, articulate brother, Adel, flies in from Kuwait for every hearing, supporting his parents. Mohamed’s wife has stopped coming to the trial – she is now heavily pregnant with their third child. And Greste’s two younger brothers, Andrew and Michael, are each doing month-long shifts in Cairo to support him during the trial. They circulate through the media now like seasoned professionals, moving from one on-camera interview to the next. It’s a skill neither of them ever dreamed they’d need. As one leaves Egypt, the other arrives – for prison visits, meetings with lawyers and diplomats, and the tedium of food shopping and getting Peter’s laundry done for the next visit.
I hugged Andrew goodbye in March and Michael goodbye in April, and said I hoped I wouldn’t see them back in Cairo. This week I greeted Michael again outside Tora Prison. He was back, Andrew had just left for a second time, and Peter was still in jail.
As I write this another Egyptian commentator, Mahmoud Mosallam, a journalist with Al Watan newspaper, has alleged that the foreign media here in Cairo is part of a “grand conspiracy against Egypt”. Describing foreign media outlets as similar to Al Jazeera, he accused foreign journalists of acting on the directions of the intelligence bodies of our respective countries, committing what he described as “professional crimes”.
It is comments like these that add more fuel to an already raging fire of paranoia, anger and hostility towards journalists, making it more and more dangerous for us to cover the huge story of revolution and repression in Egypt.
How do I tell the story if I am constantly attacked on the streets or threatened by security police? When I am waiting for a knock on the door and a midnight arrest. And when it is no longer safe to admit my profession in casual conversation.
I keep repeating the mantra: “At least I am not in jail.”
But amidst all this, there are many small moments of connection, where everyday Egyptians open up about the joyful times, the difficulties in their lives and their dreams for the future in a country that, at the moment, doesn’t inspire much hope.
As in every Arab country, people are generous and hospitable with what little they have, and as curious about my country as I am about theirs.
And sometimes their timing is perfect. On a liptremblingly lonely Christmas Eve last year, we heard a knock at our door.
It was our neighbours, a lovely Muslim family from across the hall, there to wish us “Happy Christmas”. As they handed us a bright red, potted poinsettia – otherwise known as a Christmas plant – and smiled at our flummoxed, teary thank-yous, Egypt felt like home. It still does. For now.
Ruth Pollard is the Middle East correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
Andrew Dyson is an artist for The Age