No Place for Critical Press in Egypt
In December 2016 , a committee of the Egyptian government, tasked with seizing assets of Muslim Brotherhood members froze those of the media company Business News. The company publishes the business newspaper Al-Borsa, the English-language newspaper Daily News Egypt and the Arabic edition of Forbes magazine.
At the same time, the parliament passed a new media law, under which a new body, the Supreme Council for Media Organisations, will replace the current Supreme Press Council in preventing media companies from disseminating news that are ‘harming national security’.
These events reflect the increasing scrutiny put on the independent media in Egypt. The assets of the chairman of the Business News group, Mostafa Sakr, were also frozen, as the authorities suspected that he may be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sakr denied having any ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Daily News Egypt is known as a liberal newspaper that has maintained a higher level of independence and criticism than most of the country’s newspapers. During the Muslim Brotherhood rule from 2012 to 2013, it was very critical of the government, publishing anti-President Morsi editorials. It remains highly critical today.
Remarkably, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has twice published an op-ed in the paper, on the occasion of the Euromoney conferences in 2014 and 2015, inviting the international business community to invest in Egypt. Besides a being blow to media freedom, the assets freeze resembles the systematic government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has grown to proportions of a witch hunt. Suggesting ties to the Brotherhood, even when lacking any evidence, has become an effective tool to discredit an organization or individual.
Following the 25 January Revolution, which ended Hosni Mubarak‘s 30 years of autocratic rule, the media landscape in Egypt blossomed. Several privately owned newspapers were established, such as the Al-Tahrir newspaper, which enjoyed an unprecedented freedom for Egyptian standards.
But since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the tides have turned and independent journalism has increasingly come under pressure. Several private newspapers have taken a strong pro-Al-Sisi stance since. A former copy editor at the news website The Cairo Post, the English of the newspaper Youm7, told Fanack on condition of anonymity how the paper strongly favoured Al-Sisi for president.
“Chief editor Khaled Salah once called the copy editing team in to his office, and explained we were free to do our work, but we had to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists and Al-Sisi should become president, as ‘everybody loves him’”, he said.
On another occasion, he said, there were notes on the office walls with instructions not to refer to any protesters as ‘anti-regime’, ‘pro-Morsi’ or ‘Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers,’ but systematically as ‘Muslim Brotherhood members’, effectively removing any nuance from reporting work.
Besides, journalists who have remained critical have face intimidation and even arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalist has ranked Egypt third in the world in terms of country with the most imprisoned journalists: as of December 2016, there are 25 journalists in Egyptian jails.
The best known case was the arrest and verdict of Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, over charges of terrorism and ‘publishing false news’ in June 2014. At the time of their arrest, the case dominated international headlines. Fahmy and Mohamed were released in 2015 following a presidential pardon, while Greste got deported to Australia.
Another of the most dramatic examples is the imprisonment of the photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as ‘Shawkan’. He was arrested for having taken photos during a massacre in Rabaa, Cairo, in August 2013, and has been in prison since. As of today, Zeid is still awaiting a verdict in his case and faces the death penalty. In the meantime, he has been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and his health is reportedly deteriorating.
After the international attention the ‘Al Jazeera case’ drew to Egypt, the regime has not resorted to persecuting any foreign journalists. However, several cases are known of foreign correspondents who have been banned from Egypt. In June 2015, the Spanish journalist and El Pais correspondent Ricard Gonzalez was forced to leave Egypt. In May 2016, the French journalist Remy Pigaglio, a correspondent for La Croix, was stopped at Cairo airport and sent back while in possession of the required paperwork. The Lebanese TV presentor Liliane Daoud, who hosts an Egyptian TV show critical of the Al-Sisi government, was arrested and expelled from Egypt in June 2016.
Authorities also came into conflict with the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, that has been on the forefront in the struggle to retain a certain level of press independence. In May 2016, police stormed the Journalists Syndicate to arrest two journalists who were accused of inciting protest and spreading false news.
In response, the Journalists Syndicate issued a statement demanding the resignation of the Minister of Interior, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. After the letter, the head of the syndicate Yehia Qallash, the general secretary Gamal Abdel Riheem and the board member Khaled al-Balshy, found themselves facing a court case over harboring fugitives and spreading false news.
In November 2016, the three leading syndicate members were convicted to two years in prison and a fine of EGP 10,000. The defense appealed the verdict in the case. Al-Balshy described the verdict as “reflective of the current atmosphere”. The new media law represents the latest step of the authorities to control the Egyptian media. In a statement, the Journalists Syndicate declared that “the law allows the executive power to take control of media outlets.”
The Syndicate specifically criticized amendments in the newly passed bill that state the president can directly appoint a quarter of the board members of press and media oversight institutions. Besides, the new version would potentially allow journalists to be arrested over their work, in that sense legally codifying what has already been the case in the past years. The new media law adds to a previous text, the anti-terrorism law passed in 2015, that allowed the imprisonment of journalists reporting figures regarding terrorist attacks that differed with the state’s official figures.
Media freedom in Egypt is grim. The intimidation of journalists, as well as new laws have effectively limited press freedom to pre-revolution levels, or worse. The only journalism allowed in Egypt is journalism that stays in line with the regime’s narrative.