CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's chief prosecutor on Wednesday referred 20 journalists from the Al-Jazeera TV network, including four foreigners, to trial on charges of allegedly joining or assisting a terrorist group and spreading false news that endangers national security.
It was the first time authorities have put journalists on trial on terror-related charges. The charges demonstrate the expanding reach of the authorities' heavy crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
The charges are based on the government's declaration last month of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Authorities have long depicted the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network as biased toward Morsi and the Brotherhood. But so far its crackdown on the network had mostly targeted its Arabic service and its Egyptian affiliate.
Soon after the declaration, police arrested three reporters from Al-Jazeera English, accusing them of operating a media center for the group and spreading false news.
"This is an insult to the law," Gamal Eid, the head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information said. He said there is no evidence in the case and pointed out that the charges come after this month's passage of a new constitution that authorities touted as "the charter of freedoms," for its articles guaranteeing a range of rights.
"Whoever took this decision must be punished because if there is law and justice in Egypt it wouldn't be used in political settlements," he said. "Working in Al-Jazeera doesn't mean membership in the Brotherhood."
Al-Jazeera denies bias and has demanded the release of its reporters, whose arrest sparked an outcry from rights groups and journalist protection organizations. Authorities have also denied the network's reporters accreditation.
Those arrested include acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, award-winning correspondent Peter Greste of Australia and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian.
On Wednesday, the prosecutor's office said 16 Egyptians in the case are accused of joining a terrorist group, while the foreigners — an Australian, a Dutch citizen and two Britons — are accused of helping to promote false news benefiting the terrorist group.
The prosecutor's statement said the accused had established a media network composed of 20 people — Egyptians and foreigners — who used two suites in a luxury hotel in Cairo as a media center, supported with cameras, broadcasting equipment and computers.
The statement said the defendants "manipulated pictures" to create "unreal scenes to give the impression to the outside world that there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the state" and broadcast scenes to aid "the terrorist group in achieving its goals and influencing the public opinion."
An official from the high state security prosecution investigating the case said Fahmy, the acting bureau chief, was an alleged member of the Muslim Brotherhood, led the media operation that "fabricated footage" and aired it on Al-Jazeera and CNN with the "aim of harming Egypt's reputation" in the world. The official said equipment used to "fabricate" the footage were confiscated in the hotel where they operated, including editing equipment, microphones, cameras, computers, internet broadcasting equipment and money.
The official said national security agents implemented the prosecutor's order, seizing also in the hotel documents, and handwritten notes including "students on strike during exams," ''the most important trials of December" and "the road map has become worthless." Student supporters of Morsi were on strike and held protests that frequently turned violent for most of December.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Jazeera journalists and cameramen have been detained and a court order has barred its local affiliate from broadcasting in Egypt since September, accusing it of endangering national security. The affiliate, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Egypt, has continued to broadcast using its studios in Doha, Qatar, collaborating with freelancers and using amateur videos.
The prosecutors' statement said eight of the defendants are in custody. Presumably they include the three journalists arrested in December — two Egyptians and an Australian. But it was not clear who the other five are.
The only other two Al-Jazeera reporters known to be in custody were arrested in August, while they covered a police crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo that left hundreds dead, and it was not known if they are among the defendants in the case.
Al-Jazeera had no immediate comment. A lawyer involved in the case confirmed the referral to trial but said he was still seeking more information. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his security.
Hundreds of the Brotherhood's leaders are now in detention or on trial, mostly on violence-related charges. Morsi himself is on trial.
Eid, of the rights center, said that under autocrat Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule, there were instances of journalists detained on allegations of terror links. But he said he knows of no instance in which they were actually referred to trial. He said it is also the first time Western journalists are accused on such charges.
"It is a state of hysteria that has reached the extent of making up charges," Eid said. He said he doesn't believe the case was part of a planned crackdown, but that among the various agencies of the state, each "is practicing its repression its own way ... We have repressive republics operating in one nation."