Egypt charges 20 Al Jazeera journalists with 'aiding terror', US protests

Egyptian prosecutors said on Wednesday that they were charging 20 journalists working for the Al Jazeera television network with conspiring with a terrorist group and broadcasting false images of ''a civil war that raises alarms about the state's collapse.''

The charges are the latest turn in a widening clampdown on public dissent by the military-backed government that ousted president Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood six months ago. The government has outlawed the Brotherhood, declared it a terrorist organisation, jailed its leaders and killed more than a thousand of its supporters in the streets.

According to GulfNews, foreign ministry and state information service officials say that they cannot be certain whether merely publishing an interview with a Brotherhood representative may now be a crime.

Al Jazeera, a satellite news channel owned by Qatar, is virtually the only major Arabic-language news outlet available in Egypt that is sympathetic to the Brotherhood and critical of the new government.

After Mursi's ouster, security forces moved to shut down most other Egyptian news media outlets aligned with him and the Brotherhood, and the remaining privately-owned news organisations in Egypt have almost all cheered for the government's bloody crackdown on the Islamists.

Al Jazeera was the notable exception, and it has been the target of a campaign by the government, which has closed down the network's newsrooms in the country and denounced the network as a terrorist tool.

The prosecutors' statement describing the charges against the 20 journalists accuses them of manipulating video footage ''to produce unreal scenes to suggest abroad that what is happening in the country is a civil war that raises alarms about the state's collapse''.

US flays government move
The United States meanwhile has criticized the Egyptian government for bringing charges against Al-Jazeera television journalists, saying Egyptian prosecutors acted with "an egregious disregard" for basic rights and freedoms.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described the charges of "airing false news" against the 20 journalists - including four foreigners - as a "spurious" claim.

Eight of the journalists are being detained by the Egyptian authorities. Psaki said Washington was "alarmed" by the reports that more journalists are now facing trial in Egypt.

She insisted that no reporters "regardless of affiliation" should be "targets of violence, intimidation, or politicised legal action". She also called on the military-installed government to reconsider the detentions of journalists and the charges brought against them.

The four foreigners - two British, one Australian and one Dutch - were charged with collaborating with the Egyptian defendants, in part by providing money, equipment and information. The statement appears to say that all the defendants were also charged with ''possession of documents and recordings promoting the group'' and with operating communications equipment without a permit.

If convicted, each of the defendants could be sentenced to several years in prison. The prosecutors said that eight of the 20 defendants were in custody and that the rest were ''fugitives.'' They did not announce the defendants' names.