Mohamed Fahmy has been celebrated as a journalist, denounced as a terrorist and described as a bargaining chip in a notoriously complex power struggle among Middle Eastern countries.
Yet whether he was accepting international awards for his investigative reporting or shedding light on a political maelstrom by voicing his more personal struggles, the 41-year-old has remained staunchly committed to what he views as the bedrock of his chosen field.
“I try in my journey as a journalist not to obsessively take on the role of an agent of democratic change usually embraced by many members of our prestigious fourth estate. But, I still live to challenge governments in their shortcomings through my craft,” Fahmy wrote in a message delivered to the advocacy group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “It’s a cause not worth dying for, but in time it becomes a way of life, even behind bars.”
Fahmy’s tenacity has played out on a global stage over nearly two years ever since he and two of his Al Jazeera English colleagues — Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed — were arrested in Cairo in December 2013.
The trio were accused of supporting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization affiliated with ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, and fabricating footage to undermine Egypt’s national security.
Fahmy himself said the three imprisoned journalists were innocent victims of the “cold war” between Egypt and Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera and had been a strong Morsi backer.
The journalists and their supporters insisted they were simply doing their jobs during a time of violent upheaval.
Fahmy was initially convicted and sentenced to jail time in 2014 after a judge ruled he and his colleagues had been “brought together by the devil” to destabilize the country that Fahmy once called home. A second trial ordered after Fahmy appealed the conviction returned the same verdict and destined him to three more years behind bars before he was granted a presidential pardon on Wednesday.
Among the outpouring of international criticism declaring the trials a sham and calling for the journalist’s release, few voices were as prominent or consistent as Fahmy’s.
He routinely shouted from the prisoner’s box during court proceedings, wrote open letters decrying the case against him and his colleagues, and spoke out against a regime that hampered the pursuit of journalism within its borders.
He voiced his opposition despite holding what loved ones described as a deep affection for his native country.
His wife Marwa Omara previously told the Canadian Press that Fahmy hailed from a family of serviceman and considered himself a “proud Egyptian.”
But Fahmy has also put down roots in Canada, the country he moved to in 1991 and plans to return to upon his release.
Fahmy first moved to Montreal where he became an ardent fan of the Canadiens. He also lived for a time in Vancouver before moving abroad to pursue what became an acclaimed journalism career.
His reporting took him to conflict zones in Libya and Lebanon and prompted him to write a book about the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
His work was featured in international outlets including the New York Times and NPR, and a documentary he helped prepare for CNN ultimately garnered international praise. He and his team won the 2011 Tom Renner Investigative Journalism award, a global honour handed out by International Reporters and Editors.
Judges cited the courage and resourcefulness of Fahmy and his teammates as they pursued a difficult story.
“CNN’s team faced great personal risk in crossing the dangerous badlands of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to expose a network of human trafficking and organ sales,” they wrote in the award citation.
Fahmy was working as Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief when he was arrested, an assignment he told CJFE he accepted as a “personal challenge.”
More challenges await Fahmy when he is released from prison, an event only made possible after he reluctantly opted to renounce his Egyptian citizenship. Not the least of those challenges will be dealing with infuriated family members who feel betrayed by his decision, according to Fahmy’s brother.
But the journalist has set other tasks for himself too. He told CJFE he intends to “start a debate” on how the Canadian government, which has lobbied for his release, handles similar situations in the future.
Most of all, he said he intends to remain committed to the cause that brought about his ordeal in the first place.
“I have been intrigued lately by a motto I spotted that reads: “Information is Ammunition,” Fahmy wrote. “We must unite before more of us become just another statistic languishing behind bars.”
— Follow @mich_mcq on Twitter
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press