Egypt has accused detained journalists from the Qatari-based Al-Jazeera television network of belonging to a “terrorist” group, saying they had ties with the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood, the prosecution said Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear if all three journalists face the same accusation, the first prosecutors have brought against journalists since the government designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist” group last week.
Prosecutors had earlier ordered the detention of three journalists with Al-Jazeera’s English channel, including Australian Peter Greste, after their arrest on Sunday in a Cairo hotel.
The move comes six months into a crackdown by the military-installed government on the movement of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, which has extended to media viewed as biased for the Islamists.
The prosecution accused the suspects of “belonging to a terrorist group,” in a statement.
A lawyer for Mohammed Fahmy, the Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief for Jazeera English in Cairo, said his client had been accused of Brotherhood membership.
Fahmy, a well-known journalist in Cairo who previously worked with CNN, has no known ties with the Brotherhood.
“It’s insane. Mohammed has nothing related to the Muslim Brotherhood, neither to their ideology or any aspect of the Brotherhood,” his brother Sherif Fahmy told AFP.
Prosecutors had demanded proof that the journalist was not a conservative Islamist.
“The lawyer asked how can we prove that? (The prosecutor) said get us pictures of him or comments of well-known people who worked with Mohammed around the world,” Sherif said.
Greste, the Australian journalist, formerly worked with the BBC and won the prestigious Peabody Award in 2011 for a documentary on Somalia. He was based outside Cairo.
The prosecution can still choose to free the journalists, or it can formally charge them and put them on trial.
‘Bona fide journalists’
Al-Jazeera demanded the release of the journalists.
“It is outrageous to be treating bona fide journalists in this way,” said Al-Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey.
“The allegations that are being made are totally false and unfounded. We operate in Egypt legally.”
The team had been working on stories showing the situation in Egypt, he said, adding each member had “huge experience carrying out the highest quality journalism with integrity”.
The prosecution alleged Fahmy was the leader “of the media network” that aimed to “tarnish Egypt’s image abroad”.
Its statement appeared to refer to Al-Jazeera English’s makeshift bureau in a hotel. Police had raided offices belonging the broadcaster after Morsi’s overthrow in July.
The journalists were accused of “supporting (the Brotherhood) with equipment, information and recordings that promoted its interest”.
Other Al-Jazeera reporters remain in detention, including Abdullah Elshamy of the Arabic language station arrested on August 14 when police dispersed an Islamist protest camp in Cairo, killing hundreds in clashes.
The government declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation” last week after a suicide car bombing of a police headquarters killed 15 people.
It blamed the attack on the Brotherhood which the movement condemned, while an Al-Qaeda-inspired group claimed responsibility for it.
The terrorist designation means membership with the Brotherhood, and promoting it verbally or in writing, can lead to prison sentences.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Islamists, have been killed in street clashes with police, and thousands imprisoned as the regime clamps down on the Brotherhood.
Police on Tuesday arrested Yassir Ali, the former presidential spokesman for Morsi, in a Cairo apartment.
On Monday, media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt came third for the number of journalists killed on the job in 2013, after Syria and Iraq.
It said six journalists were killed during the year, three of them on August 14 as they were reporting on the police crackdown on Morsi’s supporters in Cairo.