There are no words to describe how elated I felt sitting in my dingy cell reading a statement of solidarity published by UBC in condemnation of my imprisonment and consequently unjust seven year conviction on fabricated terrorism charges on June 23, 2014, in Egypt.
After 411 days of a baseless incarceration, the judges overturned the sentence, released my colleagues and me on bail, banned me from travelling and put us through an excruciating six months of a retrial that left me hanging on a thread every time we returned to court.
Peter Klein, the director of the Graduate School of Journalism at the time, called me to introduce his brainchild – the Global Reporting Centre. His open invitation to join this much-needed innovative platform remained in the back of my mind as I fought my battle for freedom.
I had written letters smuggled out of prison describing how I reverted to escapism in prison by imagining life back in beautiful British Columbia and the serenity that comes with its picturesque scenery.
In prison, I had an abundance of time to play back my own show reel and reminisce about the many stories I covered and the dangerous status of the media landscape nowadays.
Before my August 29th verdict, I had anticipated that I would be acquitted, and I committed to joining the Global Reporting Centre as the first Journalist in Residence. The plan was to jump on the first plane back to Vancouver with my wife to begin a new life in a healthy and inspiring community – to embrace a new and unique path in journalism.
Unfortunately, I was sentenced to three years and returned to the same prison.
I have immense respect for the GRC faculty, staff and students who continued to defend me while I was behind bars – tweeting, rallying and defending freedom of expression – that fundamental core of democracy we Canadians represent.
This unprecedented solidarity echoed global calls for our release, until the Egyptian President pardoned me on September 23, 2015, for a crime I didn’t commit.
Two weeks later, I physically walked on the asphalt of the UBC campus – proof that dreams do come true after 438 days behind bars.
I have used my time at the GRC to reflect on my experiences, share my thoughts about the state of global journalist and advocate for stronger protection for reporters working in the most dangerous places on Earth. I’ve made dozens of trips this past year, throughout Canada, the US, Europe and the Middle East, talking about the fact that the world is witnessing an unprecedented clampdown on freedom of expression, with close to two-hundreds journalists imprisoned worldwide and dozens killed last year alone.
I also used this time to finish writing my book, which will be out in the fall, and explore the possibility of producing a documentary project with the Global Reporting Centre, which is the only organization in the world that is truly dedicated to covering the under-covered issues around the world.
The nature of the mainstream media machine – one that I have experienced as a former CNN reporter and Al Jazeera English bureau chief – prioritizes the coverage of breaking news and current affairs over the untold stories that make up the fabric of our social, economic and progressive life.
The need for a smart and alternative nonprofit such as the GRC providing groundbreaking investigative documentaries and articles may serve as a model in an industry haunted by budget cuts and security threats.
Just listening to the innovative journalists talk about the unique documentary topics the centre intends to tackle in the near future has inspired me to jump right back in the saddle after 9-months of a hard-earned freedom.