Dutch journalist Rena Netjes sounds furious over the phone. She didn’t get much sleep last night.
“There are so many lies being spread, including by the Egyptian ambassador in the Netherlands,” says Rena. “I did have permission to do my job in Egypt. Until December 31, 2013, I was working with a permanent press card. Since January 14, I had a temporary one.”
Last Monday, she was one of the convicted Al Jazeera English journalists that received a ten year prison sentence in absentia for ‘working, financing and falsifying footage for Al Jazeera in order to defame the Egyptian state’.
However, Netjes has never worked for Al Jazeera English, as the organization has confirmed and the proof against her is non-existent. “The fact that the Egyptian court failed to even get my name and passport number right represents [how] the entire trial [proceeded]. A non-existing Dutch name, ‘Johanna Indienetta,’ with a non-existing passport number is convicted of being a terrorist. The Egyptians never made a connection to me, Rena Netjes. All they knew is that this person was a member of a terrorist network,” explains Rena.
“I cannot travel to any Arab or African country anymore. Even traveling to some European countries is not possible anymore. Let alone ever going back to Egypt where I lived for four years. I am not surprised, though. Justice does not exist in Egypt, nor does freedom of press.”
‘The government put a lot of effort in helping me out’
Netjes lived in Rehab City, a gated community within Cairo, where she worked for several Dutch and Belgian media outlets.
In December 2013, Rena had a cup of tea with Mohamed Fahmy whom she wanted to ask a couple questions about the situation in the Sinai for her own knowledge.
Two weeks later, Mohamed Fahmy was taken arrested and taken to Tora prison where he has been sentenced to spend the following seven years. On February 4th, Rena left Egypt after she discovered she was on the ‘terror list.’
“Not only the Dutch embassy kept me safe, the Egyptian government also helped me get out. The National prosecutor literally said: ‘For my part, she can leave the country because the evidence against her is very weak.’ They realised their own secret service was making a huge mistake. I was in a state of tremendous angst and knew I needed to leave Egypt. I was aware I would never be able to see some loved ones again, but the alternative was to end up as western blonde female terrorist in Egypt. And well, I would prefer to die than to end up like that in a prison cell.”
Monitoring the reactions on social media over the past few days reveals how many Egyptians have faith in their justice system. Even though there is doubt surrounding the legitimacy of the evidence used in the trial, many believe the Egyptian government does have their reasons for this sentence.
“Anyone would [have faith in the justice system] in this case if you are being told day and night how Western journalists are enemies of the state,” exclaims Rena during the interview.
“Everything that goes wrong inside the country is somehow the fault of the Western world. This brainwashing has made the Egyptians so paranoid that they are often suspicious. There is only freedom of press in Egypt as long you play along with the government. And even though Al-Sisi and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Justice have vowed to not intervene as the judiciary is independent, this definitely shows a deeper level of the Egyptian government’s attitude. They feel superior. They don’t care about what the rest of the world says. They are messing around and anyone saying anything about that is declared a terrorist without it backed by any functioning system.”
‘They were doing their job”
When asked how she feels about the integrity of Al-Jazeera English, Rena’s answer is clear, “Yes, the Arabic and Egyptian Al-Jazeera are very biased. But Al-Jazeera English is a different story. They are much more balanced. Mohamed Fahmy was just doing his job. And if he was in contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, so were many other journalists. It is hilarious to follow the logic that when you interview someone, you agree with them, let alone support them.”
But no matter how she personally feels about Al-Jazeera or the convicted journalists, she calls the trial ‘one big bad joke,’ citing that no evidence has been delivered by the prosecutors.
“On the contrary, it is the Egyptian prosecution that is falsifying the facts,” says Rena. “I never even worked for Al-Jazeera, nor did I finance it. I also never falsified any video footage, I don’t even know how to film or edit to begin with. Ask my colleagues.”
Ever since the arrest of the Al-Jazeera journalists in December and Rena’s escape from the country, she has not shied away from being vocal in the media.
“I am telling my story, for my own safety even though I am incredibly lucky to be safe home in the Netherlands,” explains Rena, “I will keep speaking about Egypt, also about the thousands of men and women whom are innocently imprisoned. A lot them are liberal activists. This is news because I am a Western journalist. This is daily life for many Egyptians and it has been going on for decades.”
The outcome of the trial has been causing uproar in the international community. The Australian Dutch, American, British, Latvian, Belgian and Swedish Ministries of Foreign Affairs have spoken out about their displeasure.
When asking Rena how she sees Egypt’s future in light of these events, she remains uncertain.
“I’m not sure about what could possibly change this. I think the only thing the Egyptian government is sensitive about at this time is money. All I hope is that Egypt can’t get away with this kind of sinister behavior. If the definition of terrorism is scaring innocent people to death, then you tell me who the real terrorists are here.”