Australian journalist Peter Greste, colleagues speak out from Egyptian jail

Cairo: Even from the darkness of an Egyptian jail, the three journalists have refused to be silenced.

Each managed to smuggle out letters from Tora Prison this week as international pressure mounts on Egypt over their months-long detention.

They have now been in jail 126 days and on Saturday, World Press Freedom Day, they face their seventh appearance before an Egyptian court on terrorism-related charges.

"It’s a measure of the power of the media and the government’s fear of it that our words should be regarded as potent as any bombs," wrote Australian journalist Peter Greste, who is being held with his two al-Jazeera colleagues, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and Egypt producer Baher Mohamed.

"Here in Egypt we have been imprisoned along with many other local journalists, as part of what the authorities have come to describe as their own war on terror," Mr Greste wrote in a letter read by his father Juris Greste at a press freedom event in Sydney.

"What began as a campaign to put down Islamic militancy has been extended to everyone who in the government’s words spreads the ideology of terror. In the logic of conflict that would seem to include journalists who have even moderate Islamists in their contact books."

Mr Greste's cellmate Mr Fahmy, with whom he spends 23 hours each day in a cell measuring three metres by four metres, was this week awarded the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom prize in recognition of his fight for free speech since being detained with Mr Greste and Mr Mohamed on December 29.

In a letter that Mr Fahmy smuggled from prison he wrote: "The Press Freedom award comes at a time when all I think about is how to stress the plight of many local journalists detained in Egypt who have not received a fraction of the attention I’m getting.

"A key part of our defence has been to convince the judge of our professional integrity; to prove to him that we are journalists striving for the truth; and not agents of terror. This award will go a long way toward making our case."

Mr Fahmy signalled his intention to donate his $C2000 ($1965) prize to the family of Mayada Ashraf, a young Egyptian journalist who was shot dead in March covering the weekly clashes between security forces and the opposition protesters.

All three have consistently denied the charges against them, which include conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood – a group the government has now declared a terrorist organisation – to falsify news that damaged Egypt’s international reputation.

In a third letter smuggled from prison this week, Mr Mohamed, like his colleagues, spoke of the pride he has in his profession.

"I am writing this from behind bars – the place I was sent simply for practising the only profession I know and love," he said.

"Imagine for a moment if we stopped working with courage, if we abandoned our integrity, if we gave up our independence and freedom."

As Mr Greste said: "What often gets lost is the fundamental truth that the best defence against insecurity is a vibrant, open, noisy and yes at times even rabid press, willing to snap at the extremists with as much enthusiasm as tearing strips off the authorities."

The three spoke of the support they have received from around the world.

"We are of course deeply moved and strengthened by the outpouring of support, but we also understand that this isn't just about the three of us," Mr Greste said in his letter. "Nor is it about the wider and far more critical issue of the freedom of speech here in Egypt. Our case has become emblematic of the freedom of the press worldwide."

On Thursday, al-Jazeera demanded that Egyptian prison authorities provide medical treatment for Abdullah Elshamy, another detained journalist who has been on a hunger strike for 100 days and has been imprisoned without charge since August last year.

"Forty-nine days ago, I decided to join his hunger strike, so I can live a very small part of his experience. I now survive solely on water," wrote his wife, Gehad Khaled, on al-Jazeera.

"It is painful, 100 days. What makes it worse is the refusal of the Egyptian authorities to allow independent doctors to examine Abdullah. I have no idea of his health condition, he has lost an incredible amount of weight, can barely walk and I have no idea what is going on with his organs and nervous system."

Committee to Protect Journalists said there are at least 17 journalists imprisoned in Egypt as of late April, and the Egyptian authorities continue to use arbitrary detention legal harassment to silence critical journalists.

This story Australian journalist Peter Greste, colleagues speak out from Egyptian jail first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.