What I Learned About Press Freedoms From Formerly Imprisoned Journalist Mohamed Fahmy

“A robust, inquisitive and independent press is not just fundamental to our society; it’s something that has to be nurtured.” David Paperny, Director, Mohamed Fahmy: Half Free

From the day he was arrested in December of 2013, I was drawn to Mohamed Fahmy’s story. Here was a strong subject, trying to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, in the midst of a riveting trial full of twists and turns. I finally met him after his release, when he came to Vancouver as a guest lecturer at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

His story told in the documentary Mohamed Fahmy: Half Free would prove a difficult one to tell. From the intricate web of Middle East politics that Fahmy was trapped in, to his human rights advocacy work, I learned how what happens in Egypt and in other places, can directly impact our own lives.

Politics vs press freedoms

One reason Fahmy spent 438 days in a notorious Cairo prison is because of the actions – and inactions – of the Canadian government. Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t directly reach out to the Egyptian President to demand Fahmy’s release. As happens too often in these situations, larger geopolitical issues of trade and diplomacy become more important than the rights of a Canadian citizen. Our current government still doesn’t do enough to make sure that what happened to Fahmy doesn’t happen again.

Fahmy isn’t the only journalist who’s been jailed for doing his job. At this very moment, there are more than 250 journalists imprisoned around the world — more than ever before. And when it comes to protecting a free press, Canada is not faring well either. Recently, the RCMP are fighting to force a Canadian journalist to turn over his research notes. And Quebec police have been caught spying on journalists. As a result, Canada’s own international press freedom ranking has dropped over the past two years.

Pushing for change

Fahmy struggles to overcome his trauma by helping others and fighting for freedom of speech. He could easily return to the quiet world of being a private citizen. But the fact that he continues to stick his neck out, despite having been so badly wronged, attests to his remarkable character.

Fahmy travels to human rights conferences around the world, talking about his own experience. Along with Amnesty International Canada, he has presented a Protection Charter that would force the Canadian government to provide consular services to every Canadian imprisoned abroad. And he is fighting with his former employer Al Jazeera, to insure that news organizations like Al Jazeera remain unbiased and always put the safety of their employees first.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Fahmy now works to assist other detainees.

Fahmy’s story highlights how precious, and sometimes tenuous, our own civil rights are — even in Canada. It also underscores how vulnerable press freedoms are. We can’t take these rights for granted. If we don’t fight for them, we can lose them.

Informed decisions

Now, when I read a newspaper or watch the news on TV, I pay close attention to the name of the individual who is writing or delivering that story. And I appreciate the role that their story plays in my own life. Without the work of professional journalists independently reporting what is happening in the world — including in our hometowns — I cannot make sense of the world. Without great journalism, I am unable to act on the world with a clear understanding of the things that are happening.

In the course of making this documentary, I realized how journalists like Fahmy help me make decisions about my own life — about who to vote for, who to trust, and who to hold accountable. They help me decide what values I hold dear and what values I need to fight harder to protect.