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Via Samsung: Journalists Trapped in Egypt’s Security Machine

Egypt’s security services control the country’s traditional media outlets, including TV channels, newspapers, and artistic productions, and influence little-known provincial journalists and owners of popular social media pages.

Read this article in Arabic.

“Sent from Samsung device” is the iconic sentence that sums up the current state of the media in Egypt, where security officers control nearly all of the content Egyptians are allowed to consume.

There were many things I had to catch up on in 2021. I was just released from prison after spending three and a half years behind bars as a political prisoner. During those long years in isolation, my life stopped; the world did not: Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was re-elected president in 2018, former president Mohamed Morsi died during trial in June 2019, and the pandemic unfolded, among many other things. And so, “sent from Samsung device” was new to me. 

A brief online search helped me understand the backstory: After Morsi died unexpectedly, security services issued instructions on how to break the news and explain the causes of his death. A script was sent to newspapers and TV channels alike: all words had to be read or printed, word for word, no modifications were allowed. Following the instructions, Noha Darwish, a presenter on Extra News TV, read the statement and ended it by reading the words “sent from Samsung device,” not realizing that this was not part of the official statement but an automated email signature. This gaffe exposed to the public how media outlets simply publish and read out ready-made statements and instructions sent out by the security services, without any input from their side.

The security sector’s dominance over the media was apparent again during the latest presidential elections of December 2023. For weeks, the elections were portrayed as a “democratic festival” during which millions of citizens exercised their constitutional rights freely, ignoring the numerous irregularities and violations that had marred the process before and during the voting.

These practices extend to controlling the smallest details of journalistic work, turning many journalists into government mouthpieces

The General Intelligence Service, represented by United Media Services which controls most Egyptian TV channels, media production, and news outlets issued a list of instructions for the election coverage, full of red lines, according to Saheeh Masr, a fact-checking outlet. It included documenting violations during the electoral process such as paying bribes, forcing citizens to vote, or even alluding to the population’s reluctance to participate. Unsurprisingly, authorities were quick to arrest and investigate the people behind Saheeh Masr for “spreading false news” with the aim of “distorting the image of the elections.”

Sisi’s regime monopolizes the public discourse, especially on issues relating to its failures in managing the country’s affairs, such as the deteriorating economic situation, the mounting foreign debt, and the diplomatic blunders related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The regime also tries to steer public opinion by controlling trending topics on social media platforms, to divert attention away from real and pertinent matters such as the routine abuse and human rights violations committed by the security services against citizens. This will to control the narrative is evident in the regime’s continued muzzling of any form of independent media, its blocking of independent news websites, the targeting of journalists, and the harassment of social media content creators. Moreover, these practices extend to controlling the smallest details of journalistic work, turning many journalists into government mouthpieces. 

Daily instructions via WhatsApp

Barakat* worked as a producer in a daily news show at a TV station affiliated with United Media Services (UMS). He used to work in print media before moving to television in search for better pay and career prospects. He recounted to TIMEP how content was meticulously controlled on a daily basis.

“I was added to a WhatsApp group along with a number of journalists and program producers who worked at different UMS channels,” he said. “Every day a list was shared with us about the topics that we should cover in our programs; that’s why the coverage across all news channels is nearly identical.”

“For some topics, we had some flexibility, but for others we received ready-made statements and we were not allowed to modify the official script.”

The grip of the security apparatus over media outlets started tightening in late 2017, when the regime expanded its crackdown to non-Islamist political opponents, after brutally suppressing all dissenting voices following the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the presidential elections of 2018, authorities appeared adamant on controlling anything that could influence the Egyptian public. Barakat explained that the work environment became harsher after that, as “mistakes” were not tolerated. He resigned after realizing he “could not stand working for a security officer.”

In the grip of the “liaison officer”

Liaison officers are security officials in charge of following up with journalists and social media influencers across Egypt. A liaison officer reports to the National Security Agency, one of the main bodies in charge of political security in Egypt. In each governorate, there is at least one National Security Agency headquarters, where citizens are routinely illegally detained and tortured, according to human rights reports.

The liaison officer at each National Security Agency headquarter is directly responsible for monitoring and controlling people residing in his area, including provincial journalists, correspondents for national newspapers, social media influencers, and managers of social media pages that have a large number of followers.

Ezzat Awad* has been working as a provincial correspondent for one of the country’s national newspapers for over 20 years. He says he engages with officers in charge of his region on an almost daily basis. 

“National Security officers have increased their control over our work over the last 10 years. They call us and ask us to go to their offices to receive instructions that we should follow,” he said. “Since late 2017, officers have begun asking us to create Facebook pages to publish news from the governorate we cover.” 

These pages are made to appear like genuine news sources, but in fact they aim to support the regime and push the official narrative as instructed by officers.

Journalists or political pawns?

According to two sources, one in the media and one in the security apparatus, officers sometimes use journalists as tools to settle scores or achieve political targets. For example, the National Security Agency plays a key role in selecting candidates for parliamentary councils in all Egyptian governorates, and officers sometimes rely on journalists to promote or smear potential candidates.

One of the sources TIMEP spoke with, Fadi Farid*, a journalist and manager of a number of news pages on Facebook, says he has received orders to negatively cover businessmen and local officials in his governorate, and was even ordered to target a potential parliamentary candidate. He added that he sometimes did not know whether the information he pushed was true or not.

Judging whether such practices are encouraged on the institutional level or are individual transgressions is a difficult task, as the National Security Agency is considered immune from scrutiny from mainstream media and regulatory authorities. 

Safety is never guaranteed

Staying close to security officers and obeying their orders does not guarantee a journalist’s safety. The slightest mistake may jeopardize their freedom, and all the people TIMEP spoke with were subjected to political arrest and pretrial detention for periods ranging from six months to two years.

For example, Kamal Al-Tayeb* ran a pro-Sisi Facebook page during the 2018 presidential elections, fully supervised by security officers. Months later, he published a post that contained inaccurate information about a high ranking government official. He deleted the post shortly after, but it was too late. The National Security Agency had detected the post and he was arrested and accused of joining a terrorist group in connection with a political case before the Supreme State Security Prosecution.

The crackdown on journalists, even those who cooperate with the security apparatus, is not surprising, as it represents an essential feature of the authoritarian relationship between the state and the media in Egypt

Similarly, journalist Fadi Farid* posted a video on his page covering a gathering of some citizens in the governorate. The liaison officer immediately called him and ordered him to delete the video. He was arrested the next day in connection with a political case. 

Ezzat Awad* was ordered by his liaison officer to shut down one of the pages he ran. When he refused because he profited from advertising, he was arrested, despite having been a useful asset for security for many years.

The Egyptian regime’s practices toward the media is consistent with the way it perceives the public sphere. Rather than nurturing it as a space for social and political engagement, it seeks to violently monopolize it in order to maintain power. In that vein, the crackdown on journalists, even those who cooperate with the security apparatus, is not surprising, as it represents an essential feature of the authoritarian relationship between the state and the media in Egypt. Journalists, especially those who are less known and work in the provinces, are never partners to the security machine, but rather pawns that can be easily disposed of.

* Barakat, Ezzat Awad, Farid Farid, and Kamal Al-Tayeb are pseudonyms to ensure the safety of the people interviewed by TIMEP.

Mostafa Al-A’sar is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on press freedom and media in Egypt.


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