Mohamed Fahmy talks government responsibility for detained citizens and citizen journalism at Dalton Camp Lecture

Fahmy speaking at the Dalton Camp lecture.

“The defendant is innocent until proven guilty, while we’ve been treated as terrorists. The killers and the rapists get more privileges than us.”

Those were the words of Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy to the Egyptian court 2014, days before he was to be sentenced to 7 years in prison.

Today, Fahmy has been free for a year. He was released and pardoned by the Egyptian president on September 23, 2015, after being imprisoned for over 400 days.

Fahmy now uses his story to advocate on freedom of expression for journalists and the obligation of governments to help detained citizens.

He came to St. Thomas University on Oct. 27 to deliver the Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism.

Fahmy and two of his former colleagues at Al Jazeera were arrested on Dec. 29, 2013 and accused of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood and fabricating news.
Since his release Fahmy has been speaking about his experience in prison and the responsibility of media and government for the reporters covering stories in conflict zones.

Fahmy previously covered the Iraq war in 2003 and the Arab Spring revolutions, before becoming bureau chief of Al Jazeera English in Cairo.

He said one of his jobs as a journalist in the Middle East was to visit terrorists in prison and talk with what he described as “poor minds.”Fahmy said these interviews helped him realize that education is the key for successful implementation of democracy.

Prior to the lecture Fahmy met with journalism students in Kinsella Auditorium to talk about how he and his colleagues conducted exclusive interviews while in the terrorism wing of Egypt’s infamous ‘Scorpion’ prison. At 8 p.m. every evening they would host a mock radio show through the slits in the cell doors, asking questions to people from the Egyptian president’s aide to a man who spent time in the caves with Bin Laden.

The Dalton Camp lecture was then held that evening at the Currie Center on University of New Brunswick’s Fredericton campus.

Fahmy spoke of his work with Amnesty International to introduce a bill that obligates the Canadian government to intervene when a citizen is detained abroad. He said he felt the federal government at the time of his imprisonment did not do enough to help and did not grasp the seriousness of the situation.

He also spoke of his lawsuit against Al Jazeera for not properly documenting their citizen journalists and providing cameras to individuals who were already affiliated with a certain cause or group, something he believes to be a sign of unethical journalism.

“You cannot cross the line with the ethics of journalism,” he said.

Fahmy said that while governments are making it increasingly difficult for journalists to cover stories on the conflicts in the Middle East, the use of citizen journalism should not go unchecked.

“So many networks have opened and allowed citizens to participate by sending their videos or by helping them to get the story out. However, having said that, I do believe it’s extremely important for networks to corroborate and have a really stellar vetting of the material that comes in, and the most important aspect of it all is that you can’t be allowing members of a specific faction or a group or an opposition to be involved in providing this kind of material, because right there and then, it’s not citizen journalism anymore,” Fahmy said.

Hadeel Ibrahim is a journalism student at St. Thomas. She was born in Iraq and lived in the Middle East until 3 years ago. She said that Fahmy’s lecture inspired her because she understand the thirst for freedom of speech that is not available in many countries.

“[Fahmy’s lecture] was less from a journalist perspective and more from an advocates perspective, and I think that’s, I guess a journalist advocate, and I think that’s kind of a fresh perspective that I enjoyed hearing about,” Ibrahim said.

Fahmy’s Dalton Camp Lecture will air on CBC Ideas on November 28th. The book on his experience in Egypt, The Marriott Cell, will be released on November 15. His foundation is still working to make it a law for federal governments to step in and help those imprisoned abroad.