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Rights + Justice
Federal Politics

'Media Is Our Last Line of Defence': Mohamed Fahmy

Freed from Egyptian jail threat, reporter discusses return to BC and press freedom fight.

David P Ball 26 Sep 2015 |

David P. Ball is a staff reporter for The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous reporting published on The Tyee here.

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Mohamed Fahmy: 'When you're in prison, you have mini-victories every day of your life.' Photo: Fahmy Foundation Twitter.

Newly pardoned journalist Mohamed Fahmy has ''many thank yous'' for fellow Canadians who stood by him through his 411-day imprisonment and two-year legal battle in Egypt.

But though he's grateful for the efforts of Canada's ambassador and foreign minister on his behalf, the former Al Jazeera bureau chief said the federal government needs to more aggressively advocate for citizens jailed abroad.

''There are things that could be done to improve how the government in Canada dealt with my situation,'' he said in a phone interview from Cairo on Friday, adding how, on return, he hopes to start a constructive debate on what Canada can learn from his case.

The Conservative government welcomed Fahmy's pardon this week by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, along with that of fellow Al Jazeera staffer Baher Mohamed. The two had been sentenced to seven years in prison -- convicted of offences including fabricating news and undermining national security in a trial that was widely denounced by human rights groups. In late August, their sentences were reduced to three years following an appeal. A third Al Jazeera staffer, Peter Greste, was earlier deported to Australia.

''Canada has consistently called at the highest level for Mr. Fahmy's release and return to Canada,'' said Lynne Yelich, Canada's foreign affairs and consular Minister of State in a Sept. 23 statement. ''The Government of Canada will continue to provide Mr. Fahmy with consular assistance and will assist in facilitating his departure from Egypt.''

With a Journalist in Residence job waiting for him at the Global Reporting Centre, based at the University of British Columbia, Fahmy said he is looking forward to starting ''a whole new life'' in Vancouver.* He's also launched the Fahmy Foundation for a Free Press to advocate for journalists and bloggers jailed or persecuted overseas.

''Media is really our last line of defence,'' he said. ''The 'war on terror' across the world has now partially become a war on journalism.''

This interview is edited for clarity and length.

The Tyee: You're starting a media freedom foundation based in B.C. What have you learned from this experience about the importance of freedom of the press?

I learned that media is really our last line of defence. I was in solitary confinement for months with no access to newspapers and little information. But knowing the media was out there keeping our plight alive and hearing snippets of news I received in my cell kept me going. I joined this craft of journalism to make a difference. Now I actually felt that myself on this side of the microphone, knowing journalists were fighting for my freedom outside.

That is what really inspired me to start up this foundation in Vancouver with my lawyers and my wife to build on this experience I've gained advocating for prisoners and journalists behind bars -- what strategies work and what messages to use.

When you were in prison, about halfway through your term, a letter was smuggled out. You talked about ''turning suffering into a tragic optimism.''

When you're in prison, you have mini-victories every day of your life inside -- you're battling for a pen, you're battling for an extra loaf of bread. And the most important victory usually for me was being able to smuggle out my statements or letters to families or the media. Overall I'm healthy, my morale and spirit are up, and I'm just very happy that I survived this ordeal.

Can you tell me about the Defence Handbook for Journalists and Bloggers on your foundation's website?

It's written by lawyers across the world and other free press advocates. This is one of the main goals I'm working on now: better protection of journalists, and relaying the message to different governments on protecting journalists from prosecution.

The war on terror across the world has now partially become a war on journalism as well because we're basically caught in the crossfire between governments and extremist groups alike who are trying to kill or imprison us. This is not acceptable -- I've never seen this level of animosity against [journalists] in my career.

A lot of us felt, when you were in prison and awaiting your appeal, that the Canadian government was not doing enough to get you out. What's your feeling on that now you are free?

In the beginning, the Canadian government took a very mild stance towards my situation. I did not criticize them because I was inside the prison, but my family was outspoken about their mild approach. However, after my release [awaiting appeal], my requests that the government take my situation seriously did work. The government of Canada took my situation more seriously. They were more aggressive. Ambassador Troy [Lulashnyk] here in Egypt did a great job coordinating with my lawyer Amal Clooney and engaging directly with the government here.

I really hope when I return to Canada, to start a constructive debate on how and what Canada can learn from my case -- and how they can improve the protection of Canadian journalists and citizens.

Can you name one of those things you think Canada should learn from this?

When a Canadian citizen is arrested, the intervention has to be immediate and from the highest, most senior official. No one expects an intervention from a government to get you out of a case immediately. Egypt and other governments don't like external intervention and consider it meddling in internal affairs. However, immediate intervention from senior officials in Canada could easily ease your life in prison -- move you to a better prison, get you a bed, get you to a hospital if you have a broken shoulder.

You've got a talk coming up at the University of British Columbia on Oct. 31. When's the soonest you can be in Canada, and what needs to happen to bring you home?

We will work on removing my name from the no-fly list, which is just a matter of bureaucracy. I will be flying with my wife to London for a couple days. Then we'll fly to Canada where we have [to give] so many thank yous to so many people who stood beside us -- so many Canadians who signed petitions, spoke to the media, journalists who stood beside me.

*Story corrected Sept. 26 at 4 p.m.: Fahmy will not be teaching journalism at UBC, but will be Journalist in Residence at the Global Reporting Centre and fellow at the Centre for Applied Ethics, based at the university.  [Tyee]

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