An Egyptian court on Thursday adjourned the trial of Al-Jazeera journalists, including foreign reporters, to March 5, in a case that has sparked accusations of censorship against Egypt’s military-installed government.
The journalists with the Doha-based satellite television are accused of supporting the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood and broadcasting false reports.
After opening the trial, the Cairo court said it will hear prosecution witnesses and consider the evidence at the next hearing.
The journalists present in the caged dock pleaded not guilty.
The trial of journalists for the Qatar-based channel comes against the backdrop of strained relations between Cairo and Doha, which backed deposed president Mohammed Mursi, ousted by the army in July, and his now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Prosecutors allege that the defendants, including award-winning Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohammed Fadel Fahmy, manipulated footage and supported the Brotherhood.
In all, 20 “Al-Jazeera journalists” are on trial, but only eight of them are in custody.
Prosecutors say they falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war”, possibly a reference to the broadcaster’s coverage of a crackdown in which more than 1,000 Mursi supporters have been killed in street clashes.
The government has designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, although the group denies involvement in a spate of bombings since Mursi’s overthrow.
Al-Jazeera, which says only nine of the defendants are on its staff, has denied the charges.
Greste, a former BBC correspondent, and Fahmy, who worked with CNN before joining Al-Jazeera, were arrested in a Cairo hotel in December.
The other foreign journalists listed in the indictment are abroad and will be tried in absentia.
One of the indicted, British journalist Sue Turton, an award-winning journalist who formerly worked for the British Sky News and Channel 4, told AFP she hoped the court would throw out the charges.
“Basically (the charges) relate to me aiding and abetting a terrorist organization by providing money and equipment,” she said in a telephone interview.
“I was extremely upset when the boys were put in prison,” she said of the jailed journalists. “We were all just thinking the authorities would realize what a huge mistake they made.”
“We are absolutely relying on the judges and the Egyptian legal system to throw the (charges) out.”
Turton said she had left Egypt after a brief reporting mission in November 2013, more than a month before the Muslim Brotherhood was blacklisted.
Relatives of the defendants gathered outside the courthouse before the start of the trial.
“Peter is an international award-winning journalist,” Greste’s brother, Andrew, told AFP. “This is well known worldwide.”
The arrest of the prestigious Peabody award-winning reporter and the others has prompted an international campaign by journalists calling for their release.
Human Rights Watch said the trial was part of a crackdown on dissent by the interim government.
“Egyptian authorities in recent months have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
The United States, press freedom groups and scores of journalists have protested against the detention of the reporters.
Greste himself, in a letter written from prison and published last month by Al-Jazeera, described what he sees as a lack of press freedom in Egypt.
“The state will not tolerate hearing from the Muslim Brotherhood or any other critical voices,” he wrote. “The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.”
None of the arrested journalists appeared to have been working with press accreditation, and Egyptian authorities say they welcome accredited foreign journalists.
Officials insist the channel has been working for the benefit of Qatar, a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood that has even hosted some of its members who have fled the crackdown.
In the past, Al-Jazeera, especially its Arabic-language service, has come under criticism for allegedly biased reporting in the Arab world.