Cairo: Egyptian authorities detained a team of journalists working for the Al Jazeera English news channel Sunday, including an Australian correspondent and the channel’s Cairo bureau chief, on charges that included meeting with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group the Egyptian government classified last week as a terrorist organisation.
The arrests appeared aimed at deterring journalists from speaking with members of the Brotherhood or reporting on the group’s continuing protests.
The Interior Ministry accused the journalists of broadcasting “false news” that “damaged national security” from two hotel suites.
The authorities also said the journalists possessed materials that promoted “incitement,” including information about campus strikes by students who supported the Brotherhood.
The Interior Ministry also asserted that one of the people arrested was a Brotherhood member, but it did not name that person or the other detained journalists.
A colleague said that one of them was Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent for Al Jazeera who won a Peabody Award last year while working for the BBC in Somalia.
A spokesman for Al Jazeera confirmed that the journalists had been detained but said he had no information about the charges.
News of the arrests came after Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, said Egypt could hold a presidential election before electing a new Parliament, raising the possibility that the military-backed government was preparing to deviate from the transition plan it unveiled after the ouster of the former president — Mohammad Mursi, a Brotherhood leader — in July. The government has said it would follow that plan, citing it as evidence of its commitment to democracy.
Analysts have said that switching the order of the elections could allow Egypt’s leaders to maintain tighter control over their outcome, by allowing the newly elected president to influence the make-up of Parliament.
In the past week, the government has moved forcefully to eliminate the Brotherhood. It banned membership in the group Wednesday after blaming it for a blast that killed 16 people, even though a different group claimed responsibility.
Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, said the government “seized on the moment and the grotesque nature of the attack” to accomplish several goals.
While hardliners in the security services aim to eradicate the Brotherhood, the terrorist designation gives other officials a “rhetorical” tool to stir interest in the coming elections, Hanna said.
It also provides them with a firmer legal basis to detain protesters and further suppress dissent ahead of the vote, he said.
As the government tries to consolidate power, it has faced an unexpectedly sharp challenge from militant groups. On Sunday, a car bomb explosion outside a military intelligence building north of Cairo wounded at least five people, the third such bombing in less than a week.