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Egypt risks being destroyed from within, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said during a televised speech on 22 July 2018 to mark the 1952 revolution. He claimed that ‘rumours’ are being spread on social media that could fuel discontent, destabilize the country and incite hatred against the government. In the past three months alone, 21,000 of these harmful rumours have circulated, he said.
Two days later, several television adverts were broadcast, warning citizens not to believe everything they read on social media. ‘Get your news from a trusted source’, they cautioned.
There appears to be a trend in the state’s attitude towards social media. On 16 July 2018, parliament passed three new media and press laws, which now only have to be ratified by the president. One of the most controversial points of the new legislation is that it considers social media users with more than 5,000 followers as media, making them subject to charges such as ‘spreading false news’ and ‘inciting against the state’. Blogger Zeinobia described the legislation as ‘the end of social media by law’.
The first step towards these new media laws was taken in December 2016 with the creation of three new bodies overseeing the media, namely the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC), National Press Authority and National Broadcasting Authority. However, it was not until June 2018 that the parliament’s Media Committee submitted three new laws, which were approved a month later.
The head of the Media Committee, Osama Heikal, said that the laws would provide “unprecedented guarantees” for media independence. In a tweet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to the laws as a ‘victory for the freedom of expression’.
Journalists have not been quite so positive. Several hundred signed an online statement rejecting the laws, specifically criticizing the sweeping powers granted to the media regulatory bodies, which control the selection of media chairpersons and chief editors and can suspend publications or broadcasts, revoke media licenses, and monitor and remove personal social media accounts.
The low number of seats for journalists in the SMRC (two out of nine) has also been criticized. The head of the SMRC is appointed directly by the president.
The State Council, Egypt’s highest judicial body, has expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the laws, but Heikal rejected these concerns, stating that “parliament would not issue a law that is unconstitutional”.
International organizations have voiced their own concerns, with Amnesty International saying these laws ‘would give the state near-total control over print, online and broadcast media’.
To an extent, the laws provide further legal justification for existing policy. In May, a string of prominent activists were arrested for allegedly ‘spreading false news’ and ‘joining a terrorist organization’. Most of these activists were not directly involved in politics but had expressed discontent with the country’s leaderships via their blog, Twitter feed or YouTube channel. All six arrested are still in pre-trial detention.
Perhaps the main problem with the new legislation is its vague language and the room this leaves for interpretation by implementing authorities, according to the Association for Freedom of Thoughts and Expression (AFTE). This Egyptian rights NGO stated in its quarterly press freedom report that certain articles ‘allow the administrative authority to arbitrarily use its authority’.
For instance, Article 19 states that it is ‘prohibited for media to bring fake news, to incite breaking the law, to spread hatred, violence, racism and extremism or to attack monotheistic religions’, and that the SMRC can block or shut down media that violate these regulations.
As stipulated in Article 4, it is forbidden – and can result in the indefinite closure of the offending media – to ‘harm national security’ and ‘violate the ethics and standards of the media profession’. Article 5 adds ‘sectarianism’, ‘inciting pornography’ and ‘activity hostile to the principles of democracy’ as reasons for denying or revoking media licenses, among others.
“The new laws will reshape the entire media scene,” Hassan al-Azhary, director of AFTE’s legal unit, told Fanack Chronicle in an email. “They tighten the grip of the SMRC on the establishment and activities of websites and newspapers.”
Arbitrary use of the power to close down media already appears to be happening. Since May 2017, over 500 websites have been blocked, for allegedly threatening national security or spreading false news. While some of these websites belong to actual violent militant or extremist groups, like the Hasm movement, many are independent news websites and NGOs, both local and international.
In addition, Egypt passed a new cybercrime law, which includes penalties for internet providers that refuse to execute website block orders from the authorities.
In early July, the SMRC used its power to impose a gag order on a case of alleged corruption at a famous charity cancer hospital for children. It was the first gag order issued by a non-judicial body. AFTE described the gag order as ‘legally flawed in many respects’ but pointed out that the vagueness of the new legislation and broad interpretation of it by the head of the Supreme Council allowed for this gag to happen.
Another case in which the new legislation could well play a part is that against former al-Masry al-Youm chief editor Mohamed Saleh and eight other journalists for ‘spreading false news’. The privately owned newspaper reported vote buying during the presidential elections in March 2018. The Supreme Council fined the paper EGP 150,000 ($9,000) for the coverage. Saleh and the journalists were arrested but released on bail in April. The case is still under investigation.
The chief editor of another publication, Masr al-Arabia, was released on bail in July after three months in prison on various charges including ‘spreading false news’ during the elections.
“The new law applies more restrictions on institutions and websites … which will increase challenges facing journalists,” al-Azhary said.
Press freedom in general has been under increased pressure in recent years. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Egypt 161 out of 180 in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index. ‘In Egypt … the fight against terrorism has become the regime’s key weapon for cracking down on journalists. All independent media and journalists are exposed to the possibility of terrorism charges,’ RSF wrote in its latest analysis.
At least 30 journalists are currently in jail in Egypt, according to RSF. One of the best known is photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, aka Shawkan, who has been in jail since August 2013 and is still awaiting a verdict.
The exact effects of the new legislation on the media in Egypt remain to be seen, especially considering the broad and loose terms used. “After approval [by the president], the executive regulations will be issued, which will clarify the detailed rules on how to execute the laws’ articles,” al-Azhary said. But the current circumstances do not bode well.