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Under Siege: The Dismal State of the Press in Egypt

No improvement in media freedom is expected in 2024 unless necessary pressure is applied to the Egyptian regime or policies toward it are changed.

Egypt’s unrelenting crackdown on journalists is a cornerstone of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s regime strategy to completely control public discourse, opinion, and narrative, which it views as necessary for its survival.

The security apparatus consistently employs arrests, security-related maltreatment, threats, and administrative restrictions to undermine the press, on the institutional and individual levels. Authorities also extend their reach outside Egypt through transnational repression, relying on surveillance, preventing journalists living abroad or in exile from obtaining necessary travel documents, by orchestrating defamation campaigns against journalists living abroad or in exile, inciting hostility through social media channels, and targeting the family members of these individuals within the national borders.

A recent report from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) also points to the gendered violations which women journalists from and in North Africa, including Egypt, continue to face. Egyptian women journalists face harassment, travel bans and asset freezes, cyber surveillance and social media monitoring, further restricting their ability to do their work.

The violations against journalists in Egypt are part of a broader pattern of restricting freedoms imposed by the security apparatus across various platforms of opinion and expression, including journalism, legal, literary, or artistic endeavors. This includes the confiscation of books, removal of journalistic content, restrictions on newspapers, and legal actions against critics. 

No improvement in media freedom is expected in 2024 unless necessary pressure is applied to the Egyptian regime or policies toward it are changed.

A decade of repression

After leading the military ouster of his predecessor in 2013, Sisi’s new regime began gradually curbing press freedom and cracking down on opposition, first targeting Islamists and then expanding to liberal dissidents, and ultimately all critics. A “war on terror” offered a suitable backdrop as the state issued sweeping anti-terror legislation, weaponized against all dissidents and critics, including the press. Sisi has since been elected president three times, leading the nation through severe economic crises, and surviving through bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and allies in the Gulf. Sisi relies on powerful security bodies to control the public domain; intelligence services run media outlets and are heavily involved in handpicking elected parliamentary representatives.

Repression and maltreatment of journalists persisted, and at times intensified, over the past year, particularly in the context of significant regional developments

In April 2022, Sisi announced a national dialogue among different political and social movements, but the process did not start until May 2023. Though the dialogue was portrayed as an effort to foster political reconciliation with national entities and signal a political thaw, the actual political landscape remains unchanged, with the security apparatus continuing to dominate the public sphere. Repression and maltreatment of journalists persisted, and at times intensified, over the past year, particularly in the context of significant regional developments such as the war on Gaza, the Egyptian presidential elections, and a worsening economic climate. This period saw a marked increase in security operations against journalists, especially in the last quarter of 2023.

At home and abroad, how are journalists being targeted?

The Egyptian government relies on a variety of methods to target journalists and intimidate the press, including arresting and trying journalists and publishers including through the abusive use of the Egyptian counterterrorism legislation; administrative violations such as website-blocking and the failure to license independent media organizations; transnational repression which targets journalists in exile or their families abroad; and intimidation.

Despite the release of three female journalists on February 4, 2024, at least 15 journalists are still detained as of March 2024, according to Reporters Without Borders. Other human rights organizations document a higher number, 37 journalists, counting independent journalists who are not registered with the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate, some detained since 2017. According to the Arab Media Freedom Monitor, 25 of the 37 cases involve individuals being held in pretrial detention, and 12 others have been convicted as of March 2024. The detained journalists include elderly and chronically ill individuals who are held in poor detention conditions and face medical neglect.

In August 2023, authorities arrested the prominent publisher, commentator, and press freedom advocate Hisham Kassem following his criticism of the government’s political and economic record and an online post charging a former regime-aligned minister with corruption. Following a trial fraught with due process violations, he was sentenced to six months in prison in September 2023 and was released in February 2024 after serving his sentence. 

In addition to prison sentences, Egyptian authorities have relied on arrests to intimidate journalists and to retaliate against those who have uncovered corruption and mismanagement. On August 19, 2023, the police arrested journalist Karim Asaad following a raid on his home, during which his wife was assaulted and his child was threatened with harm. Asaad was interrogated about his investigations published by the independent Egyptian fact-checking platform Matsadaash which covered an incident of a plane that took off from Egypt and was halted in Zambia with large sums of money and gold on board, leading to the arrest of six Egyptians, including military officials and police officers. Asaad was released the next day without explanation.

Terrorism charges are also routinely brought against individuals deemed as dissenting, including activists, critics, and lawyers, among others. Journalists are no exception. In April 2023, the Cairo Criminal Court added 81 individuals to its terrorism list, including 33 media personnel and employees of Egyptian and foreign media outlets broadcasting from abroad. Among them were nine journalists and presenters from Al Jazeera. In July 2023, 12 more names were added to the list for five more years, including prominent media personalities operating in exile. 

Administrative repression and retaliatory investigations

Along with arrests, the Egyptian government has long relied on administrative measures to restrict press freedom and stifle journalists, including the blocking of websites, removal of content, and restrictions on licensing, targeting outlets independent or critical of the regime.

Throughout 2023, independent media outlet Mada Masr was targeted with both security threats and intimidation as well as various administrative measures in a clear attempt by the government to stifle its work. The administrative battle dates back to 2018, when Mada Masr’s license application was rejected under the punitive 2018 media law. On May 24, 2023, on the six-year anniversary of the blocking of Mada Masr’s website by the Egyptian security apparatus, an administrative court rejected its challenge to the 2018 license rejection. 

Significantly, the rejection of licensing for media outlets and other administrative restrictions are used as pretexts for later reprisals against journalists and media outlets

Significantly, the rejection of licensing for media outlets and other administrative restrictions are used as pretexts for later reprisals against journalists and media outlets. Attacks on Mada Masr have moved beyond administrative barriers, and have also included the March 2023 trial of three of its journalists. In October 2023, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation officially blocked Mada Masr’s website under the 2018 media law for six months in an apparent reprisal for a story the outlet published speculating that the Egyptian government was preparing to accept Palestinians fleeing from Gaza. In addition to formally blocking the website, the court referred the case to the Public Prosecution, partly citing the outlet’s lack of a legal license, which the government has routinely denied. In November 2023, Lina Attalah, Mada Masr’s editor-in-chief, was summoned for investigation on charges of publishing false news that could harm national security and operating a site without a license. Most recently, on February 20, 2024, Attalah was summoned again and investigated by the public prosecutor, then released on bail of 5,000 EGP (around $104), following Mada Masr’s publication of an investigative report detailing the role of Egyptian businessman Ibrahim al-Argany and his company in controlling the movement of people and goods between Egypt and Gaza amid the ongoing war. 

The use of administrative repression has also occurred in times of supposed-political opening, such as during the National Dialogue, when in June 2023, the websites Al Sulta Al Rabaa and Masr 360 were temporarily blocked by Egyptian authorities.

In addition to preventing independent media from publishing by blocking the website, restricting licensing rights, and arrests and trials of its journalists, authorities routinely retaliate against news sites following stories which incriminate the regime in corruption and mismanagement. For instance, in December 2023, during the Egyptian presidential elections which were marred by violations—many of them targeting the media—the Supreme Council for Media Regulation announced a retaliatory investigation into independent fact-checking platform Saheeh Masr after it made public a warning issued by the Egyptian intelligence-owned United Media Services to its journalists and staff, prohibiting the coverage of Egyptian authorities bribing citizens to support Sisi’s reelection through cash payments and other means. The investigation launched into Saheeh Masr was intended to intimidate other media from reporting on the government’s mobilization of voters through bribery or other illicit means.

Targeting families: Domestic and transnational repression

Following aggressive security campaigns which forced Egyptian journalists into exile, Egyptian authorities continue to punish them for their ongoing work. This transnational repression includes administrative barriers abroad, such as continuous restrictions on issuing identification documents and renewing passports at Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad for journalists and opposition activists, but also escalates to rely on transnational repression through targeting their families who remain in Egypt to punish them for their ongoing work.

In August 2023, the father of journalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada, the Belgium-based editor-in-chief of Zawya3 (Third Angle), was arrested by plainclothes officers in Giza and forcibly disappeared for 24 hours before appearing before the Supreme State Security Prosecution. While he was forcibly disappeared, he was interrogated about his son’s work as a journalist. This followed the establishment of Zawya3 as a website offering independent news analysis, as well as his son’s coverage of human rights issues in Egypt for multiple agencies. Ahmed Gamal Ziada had himself been arrested in Egypt in 2013 and 2019, and was most recently charged with spreading false news. Ziada’s father was handed a set of standard charges given to journalists including spreading false information, “misusing” social media, and joining a “subversive” group. He was released after a month of pretrial detention.

The targeting of the families of journalists includes violations of gender as well. According to TIMEP’s report on women journalists in and from North Africa, Egyptian authorities have weaponized women journalists’ reputation as women to pressure them to stop their work. In one instance described, state security appealed to a woman journalist’s father and uncle to pressure her to stop her work, abusing Egypt’s patriarchal systems to apply family pressure on women journalists.

Repression comes at a price

The absence of a free press in Egypt has a number of serious negative consequences for the economy and stability. The severely repressed information environment has left the public without reliable information about conditions in the country, encouraging reliance on rumors, speculation, and unreliable partisan sources from abroad.

Economically, investors struggle to access credible information on market conditions, policy deliberations, and economic outlooks due to the heavily repressed and controlled media environment, resulting in elevated perceived risk and lower levels of investment. 

Egypt’s partners have an interest in encouraging greater press freedoms and an end to the repression and harassment of the country’s journalists. The European Commission is currently negotiating political conditions for Egypt’s new Macro-Financial Assistance package, and it should pursue the unblocking of news sites, an end to the judicial harassment and prosecution of journalists, and the freeing of those currently detained. US military assistance to Egypt is also partly conditioned on the progress on human rights and democracy, including media freedom specifically, and the US government should strictly enforce these conditions to encourage improvements which are vital to the success of investments being mobilized by the World Bank and its International Finance Corporation.

The repression of the press in Egypt violates the public’s right to information while heightening a number of risks to Egypt and its population at a time of growing hardship and regional instability. Egyptian officials and Egypt’s partners must prioritize improving conditions for the press. It is in the leadership’s interest if they want their new economic program to succeed in doubling the rate of private investment in the country. It is in the interest of Egypt’s partners if they want to stabilize the country and stop needing to bail Egypt out with ever larger sums of financing. And above all, it is in the interest of Egyptians who deserve to live their lives with access to credible information to better protect themselves and their families while demanding their leaders fulfill their responsibilities. 

This article has been made possible with the research support of TIMEP’s nonresident fellow Mostafa Al-A’sar.


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