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Mohamed Fahmy on Press Freedom in the Age of Trump

North American journalists face an unprecedented new climate under Trump and Trudeau. We asked Fahmy what we can learn from his new memoir 'The Marriott Cell.'

by Ben Makuch
Nov 19 2016, 3:54pm

Jailed for covering political unrest in Egypt, Mohamed Fahmy's new memoir recalls his ordeal. Still via Daily VICE

Mohamed Fahmy is a journalist's journalist who has really been in the shit, having reported extensively on the Iraq War and winning a Peabody award for his work with CNN on the Arab Spring. Conflict zones, terrorists, riots, mass political protests. And that's before Egyptian jail. He's a guy who knows a tough story, but had the unfortunate luxury of becoming a tough story. Imprisoned in Egypt for nearly two years, Fahmy did what most journalists never dream of doing: going to jail for our craft. Not only that, he went to a jail outside of Cairo meant for some of the toughest jihadis in the Middle East. Although I could face prison for my own debacle here in Trudeau's Canada, it'd be a country club vacation by comparison.

Accused of terrorism and links to al-Qaeda, the reporting world waited with bated breath for his release. His new book, The Marriott Cell, tells Fahmy's personal tale navigating prison wards with top terrorists and young protesters, to his wife Marwah smuggling his manuscripts and transcribed interviews with his cellmates out for him, because, yes, Fahmy never stopped reporting even while serving time.

Now he's free in Canada and is already a major advocate of freedom of the press. I've gotten to know him over the last year and it amazes me how wildly energetic and warm Mohamed can be having seriously gone through hell. The RCMP served me with a production order and I'm already jaded with the world. Not Fahmy. Instead, Mohamed has come back home and started fighting for imprisoned Canadians abroad and lowly journalist like me, up against bad odds.

I met him out on a park bench in trendy Toronto West, sun shining idyllically, just two journalist talking shop about surveillance, freedom of the press, Trump and the effects of Fahmy's epic ordeal has had on him now that he's living in Canada once again.

VICE: Do you feel like you have any amounts of PTSD or trauma from being inside that long?
Mohamed Fahmy: As soon as I got out, I was still dreaming of the prison and the trial and the cage and I was not sleeping well. But it's been a year since I've been out and my way of dealing with it was writing the book, letting it all out, you know, putting some context behind it. Doing a lot of research. This is my first journalistic project and I've interviewed many people in this book. I've interviewed Zaina bin Laden, the wife of Omar bin Laden, Osama bin Laden's eldest son. And I asked her about the recent audio recordings that Hamza bin Laden—the youngest son of bin Laden—had been releasing, calling on Jihadists to fight in Syria and avenge his father's death. And she was saying, you know, she thinks he's doing a big mistake but she also thinks he's being manipulated by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda. So, there was a lot of eye-opening interviews in that book.

Now, when you were inside, did you ever think that this—a similar climate of press freedom that you witnessed in Egypt could actually be found in Canada?
Well it's funny that you're interviewing me because your own story really pissed me off, you know? And, you know, I think it's important to stay on the right side of history and make sure that the RCMP or any security apparatus does not to come up to journalists for his notes because immediately the—our sources won't trust us anymore. We won't be able to bring the news to the viewer. And again, the there are the stories like the spying on journalists in Quebec by police and I noticed that during Mr. Harper's time, the government, Canada's listing went ten points in the index according to the freedom—the Press Freedom Index.

I wonder where that's going to go.
I don't know where it's going to go now. It might go lower, you know. I think we're still in the honeymoon phase with the Liberal government, but I'm still optimistic that good things could happen.

I remember you telling me was that you were in an Egyptian jail and they were going through your phone and looking at messages and that's essentially what the government's trying to do to me, which blew my mind.
So, yeah, exactly when I heard your story I was shocked as well because in the court, they played audio recordings of my interview with Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the brother of the head of Al Qaeda, right there in the court. And I was really pissed off because that's just the material I used for my interview. And when you told me that, or when I heard it—but your story, it's the same, almost, same idea, basically. And you know, we can't do that here in Canada because the whole world looks at Canada as the icon of democracy and everybody wants to move to Canada because we have the sort of democratic freedom and press freedom. When we do that it, sends very dangerous messages to the whole world.

Especially now in the age of Trump.
In the age of Trump, yeah. His rhetoric is really scary and I was devastated when I saw that result. You know, and I think he's gonna have to really change his attitude if he's going to continue for the four years.

Read More: Media Coalition and Civil Liberties Groups Granted Say in VICE Case Against RCMP

Now, do you think that the guys inside there were speaking to the Jihadists terrorists? Would they have spoken to you if they knew you would give stuff up on them? You know what I mean? Would they have been as foreign?
Well, to be honest, a lot them knew I was writing a book and they wanted their message out. But also we had—we started a mock radio show inside the terrorism wing. Every night, my colleague and I, we would be interviewing them and, like we'd do on a TV channel or a radio channel. We'd prepare the questions all day and asked them these very sensitive questions and they would spill it all out. So I documented a lot for these talk show episodes that we had inside the prison in the book.

Still via Daily VICE

Now, when you were inside, did you ever think to yourself, why isn't the Canadian government doing more to get me out?
I was the last to join the chorus. When I got out on bail for a while before I went back in again, I realized everyone was very angry at the way the Canadian government handled this case. They were very mild in their in the rhetoric. They were not talking to the right people in Egypt. Junior ministers. What they call interventions here was sending faxed and speaking to junior ministers in Egypt who don't really have clout to move things and make things happen. I was really thankful to the ambassadors on the ground because they were going a great job, yet, I felt that Mr. Harper delegated his responsibilities to his ambassadors rather than speaking to the president directly.

How about John Baird? The former foreign affairs ministers. Do you think he did enough?
I think he did the, you know, what he did what any foreign minister should do. However, when he arrived to Egypt and he announced that Canada would not put me on trial or... when there was a chance for an exit when Egypt allowed foreigners to be deported after the new presidential decree, he came out and he said he wouldn't put him on trial. So in that case, you know, they deported Peter, my Australian colleague who was with me in the same case, and they kept me inside the prison. Although, Baird had announced that my release would be imminent and I would be released momentarily.

And how about Al Jazeera. Do you think that your employer helped you enough while you were inside?
I think my employer did everything wrong when I was inside and this is not an opinion, these are all factual points that I describe in the book, you know. Hiring the wrong lawyer that I refused from day one. Not having the right licenses when we operating and not being very transparent about it. The list goes on. As it stand now, Al Jazeera has the worst record in TV history in the amount of journalists that were killed [or] detained, and probably the worst security assessment and I—in the book I interview many former and current employees who go on the record to, pretty much, describe how this network has failed its staff. And, you know, I do it after many constructive emails and communication with the network and I do it to make sure it doesn't happen to anymore of these guys still working there basically.

Now you got out. Your employer failed you, your government failed you. Now we're living in the age of Donald Trump. I mean, are you positive? Having been out for a year and been in the world and had to deal with the repercussions of your experiences?
Look, I am convinced that we would be naive to believe that there is true press freedom anywhere in the world as we, you know, witness this kind of, unprecedented attack on human rights defenders and journalists in a generation basically. But the problem is, we can't just give up. We just gotta continue fighting for that noble cause and you know, there are victory and there are losses, but at the end of the day, you know, every case is important to fight for. You know, almost two hundreds journalists behind bars globally as we speak. Now there's about 780 and journalists that have been killed in the past decade. So it's an ongoing battle and that's the only way to win it.

Personally for me, I was actually depressed thinking that I was under a top secret gag order. I couldn't' talk about my case for nine months cause of national security. So I can only imagine how you would've felt inside a cage.
You know, when I first met you and I got to Canada here, you had been given the Press Freedom Award, the same award I got when I was in the cage in Egypt. And the first thing you told me was "I can't believe this is happening in Canada" and that's exactly how I feel. I can't believe this is happening in Canada. And, you know, in that cage in Egypt, it was a, you know, obviously a very horrific experience. But on Press Freedom day, they let me out of the cage to speak to the judge, and I told him listen the world is watching, let us go. You know, it's--this is really horrific for the state of democracy in Egypt, after the Arab Spring when we were all hoping for a true democratic change, press freedoms and, you know, a new life. And, you know, he just old me happy World Press Freedom Day, get back to the cage. So... It is an ongoing battle.

So what did you think when you saw Donald Trump elected? Is there gonna be a change for journalists in North America and the world?
I felt really helpless and I was devastated, especially, due to his rhetoric against journalists. And also the way he just, you know, portrayed himself. It's really sad and I hope it's just the sort of rhetoric he's using to win some votes and appeal to the emotions of some for the voters that support him, or who are very angry at HIllary. But what's really, you know, even worse, is that many of the dictators in the Middle East have a aligned with his ideas. And they both have these similar ideas and it's really worrying and I, you know, I just can't believe he's going to run it for for four years and you know, it's just—I can't even get over yet. And I see the protest sin the United States on the street daily and it reminded a little of the story of objections, you know, many Egyptians have towards the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie. He was elected despite the fact that many liberals and seculars voted against him and we all thought that he's not gonna make it and then suddenly, the Muslim Brotherhood it grew, and that, you know, pretty much, puts the benefits of people first and they're not inclusive in anyway in the way they run the country. So I felt really devastated and helpless. Similar to how what I felt when the Muslim Brotherhood won the election. Not to draw parallels on the same ideas, but you know.

Helplessness. I get that. I mean, one that I worry about is that the FBI, an organization that's known to spy on journalists before, especially when they're power goes unchecked, very clearly, internally, has a big love for Trump. So an organization like that with as much power as it has, not checked by civil liberties groups and by the presidency, I wonder what that means for journalists if journalists like ourselves interact with terrorists, with hackers with criminals. What's that gonna mean if they don't get the information that they want?
It's really scary and what I'm seeing now sometimes seems to be like it's, the old 60s playbook, you know, Whether it's what's happening in Egypt or what's happening in the Sates, a little of what's happening in Quebec, and with you, it's mind boggling. And I just don't understand how we have reached this point. Yes, there is an unprecedented attack in this age of terrorism on all the countries in the world by IS and other groups, but we just can't let go our civil liberties and let them win by allowing the government, whether it's, you know, some of the clauses in Bill-51 or the way the FBI's dealing with the matters in the US, we just can't let that happen, you know, and that's the whole challenge that makes a difference between a good leader and a bad leader, One that can balance this suppression of terrorism while maintaining civil liberties.

One thing we do know is that Breitbart will definitely get a presidential exclusive. I was at the United General Assembly in New York and they were just all over the place tryna promote Trump and you know, they were—they're a very unique organization for sure.
Big time.