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Mahmoud Hussein’s case was the canary in the coal mine | Mahmoud Hussein

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December 23, 2016, was supposed to be a happy day for Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, as he travelled to Cairo to visit his family. But that day turned into a tragedy for him and his loved ones. Upon his arrival, the Egyptian authorities hauled him off to prison, where he has remained for two years now, facing several charges, including “spreading false information”. He is yet to receive anything remotely resembling a fair trial or even adequate medical care.

Just weeks before Hussein was detained, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced that nine journalists were in jail globally on charges related to “fake news”. Hussein became the 10th.

Even though the precedent had already been set with such a charge, accusations of spreading false information levelled against journalists increased exponentially after the election of US President Donald Trump that year. His constant use of the term “fake news” to attack media critical of his policies and actions popularised the term as a rhetorical broadside globally.

Today “fake news” is regularly evoked against inconvenient reporting not just by the usual authoritarian suspects, such as in Russia, Syria and Venezuela, but also by governments in relatively democratic countries, including the Philippines, Poland, and Spain.

Legislation criminalising any news reporting that contradicts official information has also proliferated in recent years across the world. Such laws basically determine what reality is – ie, it can be nothing else but the official narrative. In this sense, “fake news” has not only enabled crackdowns on journalists, but it has also become a legal and rhetorical tool for delegitimising the very notion of independent reporting.

As of December 1, 2018, 28 journalists worldwide are behind bars on “fake news” charges. This alarming statistic demonstrates how “fake news” has mutated from a rhetorical cudgel to a legislation-backed weapon employed to silence reporters.

Cameroonian journalist Mimi Mefo was detained in November this year and accused of publishing “false information” after she reported on the killing of American missionary Charles Wesco and the instability in the country’s Anglophone region. Maria Ressa, founder and executive editor of the news website Rappler, is facing a slew of tax evasion-related charges after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lambasted the media outlet as “fake news” for its critical coverage of his administration.

But the grand champion of persecuting journalists through “fake news” charges has been Egypt: 19 of those 28 journalists imprisoned on such charges worldwide are Egyptians.

In fact, the Egyptian leadership has had the dubious honour of being a trendsetter in the use of “fake news” accusations against journalists: among the first journalists to be hit with these charges were Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, who were arrested on December 29, 2013.

Mohamed, Fahmy, and Greste were later freed after more than a year in detention, but more journalists would take their place. In 2015, Egypt passed anti-terror legislation that specifically made it a crime to dispute official accounts of terror attacks. Since then, more and more journalists have been imprisoned in Egypt, and false information charges figure ever more prominently in the justification for their detention.

Egypt has also resorted to mass trials of media professionals. As of December 1 this year, at least 12 Egyptian journalists have been charged under case 441/2018 with “spreading false information”. Among them was Wael Abbas, a prominent blogger, who was arrested on May 23 and only freed from custody earlier this month. This case demonstrates how indiscriminate Egyptian authorities have become in their crackdown on the media.

With at least 25 journalists behind bars (19 of whom accused of spreading “false information”), Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is betting on the silence of the international community, so he can continue to muzzle dissident voices unobstructed. In doing so he has even taken on international institutions.

In April, the Egyptian foreign ministry slammed UNESCO for awarding detained photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid the 2018 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize. Abou Zeid was supposed to be released by now after being sentenced in September this year to five years in prison (which he has already served) in the mass trial of the Rabaa sit-in dispersal; he was charged along with other defendants of organising an armed gathering and resisting the authorities, although he gone to the sit-in to cover it as a journalist. By now, his detention is illegal under Egyptian law and prosecutors are saying that he may not be released until February next year.

The international community must demand the release of Abou Zeid, Hussein and all other unjustly detained journalists in Egypt. An international campaign recently helped Abbas get released from detention. This means the Egyptian leadership clearly cares about its image internationally and therefore, we must keep up the pressure.

We must continue to draw public attention to Egypt’s imprisoned journalists and call out Sisi’s weaponisation of “fake news”. And we must also push back against the increasing prevalence of “fake news” rhetoric which threatens to criminalise journalists around the globe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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