TV engineer’s arrest is a ‘strange’ twist in Cairo’s row with Doha

Salem’s lawyer has sent a complaint to the Qatari Foreign Ministry, demanding a fair trial for his client.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Small screen, big business. Egyptians watch a football match at a cafe in Cairo. (AP)
Small screen, big business. Egyptians watch a football match at a cafe in Cairo. (AP)

CAIRO - An Egyptian TV engineer is at the centre of debate a year after he was charged in Qatar of spying for Egypt and sent to prison.

Ali Salem, 54, was the director of technical operations at beIN Sports, once an affiliate of the Al Jazeera Network.

In October 2018, Salem received a medal during beIN’s 15th anniversary for being instrumental in the success of the network. Two days later, Qatari police raided his home in Doha, arrested him and seized $5,000 his wife had withdrawn from a bank to pay their children’s school fees.

Salem was imprisoned and his wife did not see him until three months after his arrest.

“His case is very strange,” said Yasser Fathi, Salem’s lawyer. “This man is accused of spying for Egypt, even as Al Jazeera is nothing more than a civilian commercial, not military, entity.”

Salem’s story with Al Jazeera began 23 years ago when Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani staged a coup against his father and became emir of Qatar. He approached Egyptian Information Minister Safwat al-Sharif and said he wanted to establish a major news network. Sharif sent a group of television engineers, including Salem, to Qatar and Al Jazeera was established in 1996.

That network has become a thorn in Egypt’s side. Critics say the ideological conflict between Cairo and Doha drives Al Jazeera’s reporting about Egypt and that it is tainted with bias and fabrications.

Egyptian business mogul Ahmed Abu Hashima was considering establishing a sports network to try to break beIN’s monopoly in Egypt. He met with Salem several times in Cairo to discuss the idea and asked the television engineer to prepare a study on the possible venture.

“It was a mere study for a project that had not been implemented by then,” Abu Hashima said during a recent televised interview.

Qatari authorities shortly after that accused Salem of leaking information to Egypt for the $5,000 they found at his home in Doha. They said by leaking this information, Salem caused Al Jazeera to incur tens of millions of dollars in losses.

After Salem went to prison, Abu Hashima launched ONsport, which has sometimes outrivalled beIN and won the broadcast rights of several events.

Beating Al Jazeera and affiliated networks, media specialists said, is possible but it will take Egyptian media a lot of work to do this.

“Our media are badly in need of speeding up its coverage of local, regional and international events,” said Safwat al-Alem, a professor of media at Cairo University. “Local sports networks also need to compete more strongly over the broadcast rights of major sports events.”

Salem is caught in the middle of the rivalry. The study he gave Abu Hashima did not trespass on beIN, Abu Hashima said.

“On the contrary, it defended the rights of the Qatari network but Salem’s arrest shows the envy Qatar harbours towards the people of Egypt,” Abu Hashima said. “It wants the cable converter box of its channels to be in every Egyptian home.”

The Egyptian government does not have diplomatic ties with Qatar, which is why Salem is being defended by local rights groups. Some lawmakers are standing up for the TV engineer and said they would present his case to the UN Human Rights Council.

Salem’s lawyer has sent a complaint to the Qatari Foreign Ministry, demanding a fair trial for his client.

“His prison conditions and the total disregard Qatari authorities show of his rights bode ill for his trial,” Fathi said. “He does not receive any medical care and there are no guarantees that he will receive a fair trial.”