Hundreds of media representatives gathered in silent protest outside BBC headquarters in London today at the jailing of three Al-Jazeera journalists, as the Egyptian president said he will not interfere in court rulings.
The sentencing of Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohammed to seven years each in Cairo yesterday on terrorism-related charges stemming from an interview with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood sparked an international outcry.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “appalled” at the verdicts, but president of Egypt Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi spoke out during a military graduation ceremony, saying: ” We will not interfere in court verdicts.”
He said Egypt has an independent judiciary and urged people to stop commenting or criticising rulings by courts.
Staff from the BBC were joined outside Broadcasting House by representatives from Al-Jazeera and Sky among others, with many of those gathered wearing black tape over their mouths and carrying papers saying “#FreeAJStaff”.
The protest took place at 9.41am, exactly 24 hours after the men were sentenced.
Barnaby Phillips, special correspondent with Al-Jazeera, described Mr Greste as “a tough customer”.
He said he and the others would be heartened to see the support at the protests and online, where hashtags including #journalismisnotacrime have been trending worldwide.
BBC Panorama reporter John Sweeney, who has worked in Afghanistan and most recently undercover in North Korea, said the verdicts yesterday were “wrong, wrong, wrong”.
“The Egyptian government has taken a step back into the middle ages,” he told the Press Association. ” They’ve locked up three people whose only crime was doing their job. Journalism is not a crime.”
While he said he does not think the protest “will really achieve much”, he added it was an opportunity for journalists to take a stand.
And he appealed to members of the public to support the cause. “I would invite people not to go on holiday to Egypt, there are lots of other sunny places they could go to,” he said.
“And I would invite the Egyptian government to watch some of Peter Greste’s work. Then they will see this is not a man who is supportive of extremist Islam.”
Radio 4 presenter Julian Worricker said: “It is really important because they represent all journalists because they were just doing their jobs and they end up jailed for seven years.
“There by the grace of God go all of us.”
Asked if he thought there would be more protests, Worricker said: “I’d be disappointed if (protests) didn’t continue because there is a strong sense of injustice.”
BBC technician Mark Reeves said the protest would be the first of many efforts to draw attention to the case.
“This will be the start of a concerted campaign to make the Egyptian government see how strong the international reaction to this,” he said.
“It’s essential to make a stand for press freedom.”
The Foreign Office political director Simon Gass met with the Egyptian Ambassador in London Ashraf El Kholy yesterday to convey the UK Government’s displeasure about the sentencing.
A Foreign Office spokesman said Mr Gass told the ambassador, who had been summoned by Foreign Secretary William Hague, that the Government is “deeply concerned by the verdicts and the procedural shortcomings seen during the trial”.
A letter will be sent on behalf of a number of news organisations and broadcasters to the Egyptian president today, asking him to intervene.
James Harding, BBC director of news and current affairs, told those gathered at the protest that the verdict was “unjust” and the case “unfounded”.
“Taken together, the Egyptian authorities are not just robbing three innocent men of their freedom, they are intimidating journalists and inhibiting free speech,” he said.
He described the event as “a silent protest at their unjust imprisonment and a statement of our belief in journalistic freedom and the right to free speech”.