02/04/2014 03:48 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

White House Urges Egypt To Release Imprisoned Journalists

Press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday the White House remains "deeply concerned" about freedom of expression in Egypt following the government's decision to charge 20 Al Jazeera journalists on allegations related to terrorism.

Carney said the White House has "expressed these concerns directly to the government of Egypt" and "strongly urged the government to drop these charges and release those journalists and academics who have been detained."

The White House's call for release comes as journalists and press freedom advocates protested across the world Tuesday, trying to raise awareness of the situation for their colleagues in Egypt. Some journalists protested in Nairobi, where one imprisoned journalist, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, is based, while others took to Twitter under the tag #FreeAJStaff.

After seizing power in a military-backed coup last summer, Egypt’s interim government immediately cracked down on news outlets deemed too sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that rose to power following the Arab Spring uprising but which has since been outlawed. Egypt ranked as the third-deadliest country for journalists in 2013, and the government's latest strike at press freedom has only heightened fears about reporting independently in the country.

Egypt’s prosecutor announced Wednesday that the government would try 20 journalists on charges of incitement, tarnishing the country’s image and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which has now been labeled a terrorist group. The move was widely condemned by advocates for press freedom and human rights groups.

"This attempt to criminalize legitimate journalistic work is what distorts Egypt's image abroad," Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Wednesday. "The government's lack of tolerance shows that it is unable to handle criticism. We call on authorities to drop these outrageous charges and release all journalists from jail immediately."

The U.S. has expressed concerns previously regarding Egypt's press crackdown, but did not go as far as urging the journalists' release.

On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "The government’s targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms.”

In addition to local Egyptian journalists, the government is charging two British, one Dutch and one Australian citizen. Bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, who holds dual Canadian and Egypt citizenship, is also among those charged.

On Sunday, the Egyptian government leaked a video of the Dec. 29 arrest and interrogation of Fahmy and Greste, a move The New York Times described as “the latest salvo in a propaganda campaign by the state-run and pro-military news media.” The images are accompanied by dramatic music to suggest that journalists simply working out of a Marriott hotel are plotting to harm the government.

Carney’s statement is the second from the White House over the past week on issues of press freedom.

On Thursday, Carney said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the ability of foreign journalists to report in China, a statement which came as New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy was forced out of the country.