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Public editor: One convicted journalist is guilty, others are not

Mohammed Fahmy is one of three Al-Jazeera journalists convicted of terrorism-related charges.

Hamada Elrasam/Associated Press

Two high-profile court cases involving journalists this week are likely to evoke quite different responses from you as a reader.

The first is the Tuesday conviction of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson for conspiring to hack private telephone accounts.

The practice is illegal, but for years British tabloids tapped into the voice mails and cellphone conversations of anyone from royals, politicians and celebrities to a murdered schoolgirl.

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Coverage of the kidnapping and killing of 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002 was perhaps hacking at its worst. By listening to the girl's messages before her body had been discovered, the News of the World led her grieving family to believe that she may have still been alive.

In the end, the backlash to the hacking revelations was so severe that owner Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World, seen as the worst of the offenders.

Even so, Mr. Coulson claimed his innocence for seven years, until he finally admitted that he not only knew what was going on but had, in fact, listened to a former cabinet minister's messages himself.

Mr. Coulson now faces up to two years in jail, but it's highly unlikely that the public or his former colleagues in the media will champion his cause.

After leaving the paper, he became a media adviser to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who admitted this week that hiring him "was the wrong decision."

Contrast that case with the appalling decision Monday by an Egyptian court to jail three Al Jazeera journalists, including Canadian Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, for seven years simply for doing their jobs.

Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent, has reported that Egypt's current regime was unhappy with Al Jazeera, believing that the network was biased toward the previous Muslim Brotherhood government. But there was no evidence that the three defendants' work had been anything other than balanced reporting.

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And this should concern you greatly. Journalists face real risks to their liberty and personal safety when striving to provide readers and viewers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about what is happening in troubled countries such as Egypt.

Without that awareness, despots and dictators feel they have free rein to do as they choose. In recent years, Globe and Mail journalists have worked in difficult circumstances in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan and, on many occasions, Egypt.

Before any foreign assignment, they are required to take hostile-environment training that covers the many physical threats they may face – from driving in dangerous areas to being shot at or kidnapped. But the threat of a capricious or hostile government is something we also must keep in mind.

Foreign editor Susan Sachs, a former Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, says the convictions in Egypt are especially chilling.

"They are a reminder that the freedom to report without fear of reprisals is under threat not just in dictatorships and conflict zones. It's also in danger in countries with elected governments and the trappings of democracy – Egypt is one, but there are many others cited by international press-freedom groups – and where people in power suppress free debate and conflate free expression with opposition."

So, the two cases couldn't be more different. Mr. Coulson acted outside the law, did not defend his actions as being in the public interest and, in fact, lied about them for years.

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The three Al Jazeera journalists, meanwhile, face a long and brutal time in jail for doing something that Canadian journalists do every day – something that is very much in the public interest.

It should be in the public interest to see them set free.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More


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