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As elections draw near, Egypt’s media faces further restrictions

Egypt’s top prosecutor has called on his staff to monitor for "fake news," warning against "forces of evil" as this month’s presidential elections approach.
People walk by a poster of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the upcoming presidential election, in Cairo, Egypt March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - RC1803270830

Egypt’s Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadek has instructed his staff to monitor news and social media outlets and take legal action against those deemed to be "undermining the country's security."

Branding them "forces of evil," Sadek accused media outlets of spreading false news “to disturb the public order and terrorize society.” The term "evil forces" was used by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in January to refer to political opponents who had called for a boycott of the March 26-28 presidential election. Sadek 's comments, meanwhile, appeared directed at foreign media, which unlike most Egyptian mainstream outlets have not been toeing the official government line.

The call on prosecutors to punish government critics came against the backdrop of a government dispute with the BBC over a damning report by the public service broadcaster highlighting alleged torture and enforced disappearance cases in Egypt. The report, titled "The Shadow over Egypt" and broadcast Feb. 23, has been slammed by the government as "lies and false allegations." This came after a mother told the BBC that her daughter Zuebeida had been "forcibly disappeared"; however, the young woman then appeared on a talk show on the privately owned Egyptian ONTV to deny her mother's claim.

Zubeida's mother, whose name is Mona Mahmoud Mohamed, has since been ordered detained for 15 days pending trial on charges of "spreading false news" and "belonging to an outlawed group," in reference to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Colleagues said rights lawyer Ezzat Ghoneim, who was the first to report Mohamed's arrest and was critical of the authorities' handling of the case, vanished the afternoon of March 1; he resurfaced at state security prosecution March 4 amid rights groups' condemnation of his "enforced disappearance." Amnesty International said he was the latest rights activist to be disappeared.  

BBC reporter Orla Guerin, who has been subject to public anger in social media attacks, also faces prosecution on the charge of "spreading fake news." The legal complaint against her was filed by lawyer Samir Sabry, notorious for his multiple prosecutions of celebrities and public figures in the name of morality. Sabry makes no secret of his antipathy for human rights. "I do not believe in something called human rights," he said in a TV interview broadcast on the Egyptian Al Assema TV channel in May 2015.

Egypt's State Information Service, the government agency that accredits foreign journalists and follows up on their work, has threatened the BBC with a boycott if it fails to offer a formal apology and retract the controversial report. Diaa Rashwan, the head of the state media body, has urged officials to refrain from giving interviews to BBC journalists and producers until the matter is resolved. But the BBC has stood its ground, telling the authorities that it "stands by the integrity of its reporting teams."

With no signs of tensions easing just yet, the government appears to be weighing its options for further punitive measures against the BBC. Hatem Zakaria, a member of the Supreme Media Council, has hinted that the regulatory body was considering blocking access to the BBC website in Egypt.

"Egypt is not the only country that resorts to blocking news sites; in cases of noncompliance with media treaties and laws, this is often an option to deal with such crises," Zakaria was quoted as saying by the privately owned Al Dostour news site. "The foreign media has misrepresented truths about Egypt several times before; it's happening at a critical time when the country is preparing for presidential elections and fighting a war against terror in the Sinai Peninsula," he added.

This is not the first time the foreign media has been caught in the crosshairs of the Egyptian authorities. In April 2016, a report published by Reuters provoked the government's ire, leading to an investigation of the news agency's Cairo bureau chief Michael Georgy by police and prosecutors. The Reuters report, criticized as "fake" by the government, had claimed that slain Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, whose badly mutilated body was discovered in a roadside ditch on a desert road leading to Cairo on Feb. 4, 2016, had been detained by police on the night he vanished. The allegation was based on the testimonies of anonymous security sources who had requested that their identities not be revealed because of the sensitivity of the issue, according to the Reuters correspondent.

The government has on several occasions reprimanded foreign media and international rights groups, accusing them of "bias" and failure to understand the political situation in the country. Sisi himself has warned that “lies and allegations” in the press and on social media were putting the country at risk. In late January, he went further and threatened to take "strong action against anyone trying to disrupt the country's stability."

Free speech advocates fear Sisi's warnings — and the recent comments by the public prosecutor — signal a further shrinking of the already diminished space for free speech in the country.

"The call for criminal charges against evil forces is unprecedented. This is not the job of prosecutors. There are regulatory bodies in the country whose task is to monitor the media and take necessary action against media organizations that violate press laws. The remarks throw the Egyptian judiciary in a deep crisis, alerting the world to the politicized trials taking place in Egypt," Walid el-Sheikh, an Egyptian journalist who resides in Berlin, Germany, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview.

"Forces of evil is a vague term that will allow the government to intensify its crackdown on dissenters," Sheikh said.

"The [top prosecutor's] comments are tantamount to a gag order that spells the end of ethical journalism in Egypt," a journalist who works for the semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper told Al-Monitor. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, she complained that "journalists will no longer be able to play their watchdog role nor will they be able to challenge the authorities."

Seeking to allay journalists' concerns, Abdul Mohsen Salama, the head of the Press Syndicate, downplayed the public prosecutor's order to crack down on the media, calling it a "preventive measure." He insisted it would not undermine press freedom but added that the syndicate and the public prosecution see eye to eye on the need to monitor news and social media “to protect national interests."

Since June 2013 and increasingly so recently, many journalists in Egypt have adopted the state narrative in order to keep their jobs or win favor with the “patriots” — a word cynically used in Egypt to describe government cheerleaders. "Journalists will now be parroting the official government line to avert the risks of prosecution and arbitrary detention," the Al-Ahram journalist said.

According to a December report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are no fewer than 20 journalists languishing in Egyptian prisons. The report suggested that the country's "draconian" anti-terror law has helped pave the way for the ongoing clampdown on press freedom. Salama said there are no journalists locked up in Egypt in relation to their work.

Egypt has since May continued to block access to critical news sites and blogs in what critics have described as "a major assault on free expression.” More websites have periodically been added to the burgeoning list. By September, the number of banned websites exceeded 420, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a Cairo-based nongovernmental organization that has raised the alarm over the increasingly restrictive media environment.

As the presidential election draws near, the government appears more determined than ever to wipe out dissent and silence critical voices once and for all. In recent days, Selma Alaa Eddin, a video editor and member of the April 6 youth movement, was summoned for investigation by prosecutors over a documentary she was co-producing, deemed critical of the regime's policies. Tarek Ziada, a video editor who was working on the film titled "Minus 1095 Days," has been ordered detained for 15 days on the charge of "spreading lies to harm the country's interests."

Ironically, some of the government's most ardent supporters — such as TV talk show host Khairy Ramadan — have also been affected by the ferocious censorship sweep. Ramadan's TV show "Egypt Today" on Egyptian state television has been suspended and the presenter was ordered detained for 24 hours pending investigation on the charge of "insulting the police." The Interior Ministry pressed charges against Ramadan after he read a letter on air from the wife of a policeman who had complained about "the struggles in her daily life.”

The response from Sisi has been harsh. He made clear that there is zero tolerance for any criticism of the police and the army, describing any insults of security forces as "tantamount to high treason."

"The government is using all possible means to terrorize journalists. The intimidation tactics may succeed in muzzling the Egyptian press but will do little to silence the independent foreign media. If anything, such threats will only fuel criticism of the regime's rights abuses," the Al-Ahram journalist said.

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