Three Al Jazeera journalists faced with terrorism charges pleaded not guilty in a Cairo court on Thursday in a case that has been described as a "trial of journalism itself."
The trial for the three has been adjourned until March 5.
Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were seized in December, and are among 20 journalists on trial, 9 of whom work for the Qatar-based news agency, according to Al Jazeera. Prosecutors accuse the three of "spreading lies harmful to state security" and "joining a terrorist organization." Yet Heather Allan, head of news gathering at Al Jazeera English, previously explained, "We were doing nothing more than our jobs there that any one of our colleagues would be doing in Egypt at the moment."
Independent journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous explained that "They’re the first terrorism-related charges being brought against journalists, and they are being... brought after the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization by the government last month."
The charges could bring prison sentences of five to 15 years.
"The charges against our staff are baseless, unacceptable and wholly unjustified," said Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English.
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"What is going on in Egypt right now is a trial of journalism itself, so it is critical that we remain resolute in calling for freedom of speech, for the right for people to know, and for the immediate release of all of Al Jazeera's journalists in detention in Egypt," Anstey said.
Al Jazeera is calling for February 27 to be a global day of action to focus pressure on the journalists' release.
"Journalists should not have to risk years in an Egyptian prison for doing their job," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement issued Thursday. "The prosecution of these journalists for speaking with Muslim Brotherhood members, coming after the prosecution of protesters and academics, shows how fast the space for dissent in Egypt is evaporating."
Representatives of international news organizations issued a statement last month calling for the immediate release of journalists detained in Egypt, writing, "The arrest of these journalists has cast a cloud over press and media freedom in Egypt. We strongly believe that upholding the rights of journalists and permitting the free flow of information is vital to bringing about greater understanding and serves the best interests of all Egyptians and the world.
In its latest annual assessment of attacks on the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Egypt as the third-deadliest country for the press, and noted the country's threats, harassment and detention of members of the press throughout 2013.