Egypt to try 20 Al-Jazeera journalists

CAIRO (AFP) - Egyptian prosecutors Wednesday referred to trial 20 journalists working for Al-Jazeera television, including four foreigners accused of "airing false news."

The Qatar-based news channel, which has incensed Egypt's new military-installed authorities by its coverage of their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, said the charges are baseless and "silly." The 16 Egyptians have been charged with belonging to a "terrorist organisation... and harming national unity and social peace," a prosecution statement said.

And two Britons, an Australian and a Dutch woman have been accused of "collaborating with the Egyptians by providing them with money, equipment, information... and airing false news aimed at informing the outside world that the country was witnessing a civil war." Of the 20, only eight are in detention, while others are being sought, the prosecution said.

The network said only five of its journalists are being held.

The prosecution did not name the detained, but three Al-Jazeera journalists were arrested at a Cairo hotel on December 29. They are Peter Greste, an acclaimed Australian who formerly worked for the BBC; Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Adel Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed.

Al-Jazeera said "the entire world knows that these charges against our journalists have no basis." They are "silly charges and not based on any reality," the channel said.

"This is a challenge to freedom of speech and the right of journalists to report different aspects of events, and the right of the people to know what is happening," it added, vowing to pursue the case "all the way." It said its journalists had not been officially informed of developments in their case, widely covered in Western media, which the prosecution previously suggested could also violate Egyptian law.

The prosecution previously accused the Al-Jazeera crew of links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been blacklisted by the authorities as a terrorist group.

That is part of what has been a deadly government crackdown on the Brotherhood since the July ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the movement.

The blacklisting of the Brotherhood makes promotion of the group either verbally or in writing punishable by lengthy prison sentences.