(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - The Egyptian authorities must immediately drop the charges against three journalists from Al Jazeera English who were referred to trial today for allegedly providing assistance or belonging to a banned group engaged in terrorist activities, said Amnesty International.
"Today's decision by Egypt's chief prosecutor to refer a number of journalists to trial on alleged terrorism related charges is a major setback for media freedom in Egypt," said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. "The move sends the chilling message that only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today - that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities."
The three journalists - Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed - have been detained since December 29, 2013. Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to free expression and is calling for them to be immediately and unconditionally released.
If convicted, the journalists could face between three years to life in prison.
"Journalists cannot operate freely in a climate of fear," said Shetty. "The latest development is a brazen attempt to stifle independent reporting in Egypt. In the lead up to elections, a free press is essential."
A further 17 Al Jazeera staff members were also referred to trial today, accused of belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news about the political situation in Egypt. Five of them are currently being held in detention, according to the public prosecutor. It is feared they were arrested in connection with their journalistic work.
Amnesty International fears that the charges may be an attempt to punish the journalists for Al Jazeera's editorial line. The channel has been accused of being biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Any charges that stem from the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression must be dropped.
In a separate case, the Egyptian authorities had arrested Mohamed Badr, an Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr cameraman, and Abdallah El Shamy, an Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent, in July 2013. Both men remain in detention for covering violations by the Egyptian authorities.
Egypt has witnessed an alarming escalation in attacks on press freedom since Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013, with a number of journalists facing arrest for reporting on human rights violations carried out by the security forces.
Amnesty International urges the Egyptian authorities to respect freedom of expression and allow journalists to carry out independent reporting into all issues, including criticizing the government, without the threat of intimidation or arrest.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million members in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.