On Thursday, September 22, Mohamed Fahmy gave a talk at Concordia University about his imprisonment in Egypt. The talk, entitled “Media in the Age of Terror: How the war on terror became a war on journalism,” was Concordia’s 2016 Homecoming Keynote lecture.
Fahmy is an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who has worked extensively in conflict zones throughout the Middle East. He has reported for several media networks such as CNN and the BBC. Prior to his arrest and incarceration, Fahmy served as Al Jazeera’s English bureau chief in Cairo. The last story he remembers covering was the branding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, he said.
In December 2013, a police officer told Fahmy “‘you are a member of a terrorist organization, you have fabricated news, you were operating without licenses.’” He and two of his Al Jazeera colleagues were also falsely accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ultimately incarcerated in a maximum security prison in Egypt for over 400 days, including a month in solitary confinement alongside members of Al-Qaeda and Daesh (also known as ISIS).
At the event, Fahmy described his days in the prison. “Like many people who go to prison […] you think this is just a mistake, it will be over in the morning, it’s not a big deal. But it turned out to be a huge deal,” said Fahmy, recalling his earliest memories of the trial where he was sentenced to imprisonment. “This is the nastiest prison I have ever seen. You’re underground in a room, in a cell, basically solitary confinement. No access to light, no toilet flushing, [and] lots of insects.”
“All you [had] in that cell was a hatch where you could look through in the corridor to see the other cells,” continued Fahmy.
According to Fahmy, there are about 200 journalists missing or unjustly arrested in various parts of the world. “I believe that this is an unprecedented attack on journalism that we’re witnessing now,” he said.
“All you [had] in that cell was a hatch where you could look through in the corridor to see the other cells.”
While in prison, Fahmy realized the power of the internet in mobilizing people to help free himself and his colleagues. People tweeted with hashtags such as #FreeAJStaff and #HarperCallEgypt, shared information on Facebook, and pressured politicians to raise awareness about the journalists’ plight.
Following his release, Fahmy and his wife Marwa Omara created the Fahmy Foundation which, according to its website, aims to “provide advocacy and financial assistance to journalists and prisoners of conscience who are unjustly imprisoned around the world.” The foundation raises funds and awareness for these people, and persistently calls attention to their situation, challenging governments and individuals to help free them.
The Fahmy Foundation supports families of the wrongfully imprisoned, and, along with Amnesty International Canada, is trying to persuade the Canadian government to adopt a Protection Charter. The charter proposes a system of protection for journalists from vague anti-terrorism laws.
“I believe that this is an unprecedented attack on journalism that we’re witnessing now.”
“My biggest motivation to do my job as a journalist is to pursue the truth and give people a voice,” said Fahmy.
Nahka Bertrand, a graduate student in Concordia’s department of journalism, shared her thoughts with The Daily after the lecture. “As an Indigenous student, I resonate with his story,” said Bertrand. “Getting the voices of Indigenous people is very important. We have a history of persecution […] but we are trying to get representation in this democracy.”
Bram Freedman, Vice-President of Advancement and External Relations at Concordia, spoke to The Daily about Fahmy’s impact on the university’s solidarity campaign with Homa Hoodfar, a professor imprisoned in Iran.
“My biggest motivation to do my job as a journalist is to pursue the truth and give people a voice.”
“It’s a pleasure to have Mr. Fahmy here today,” said Freedman. “I think he particularly resonates with Concordia because [of Hoodfar’s imprisonment]. We think it’s a particularly compelling story for Concordia now and if he can encourage people here to advocate for her release through social media, and so on, then I think that will have a big impact.”