Maspero television building (photo by Ahmed Hamed Ahmed)

How the Egyptian State Codifies Media Censorship

12/09/2019 . By Nourhan Fahmy

With a raid on one of Egypt’s only independent news media outlets and the arrest of four additional journalists in just two weeks, rights groups and press freedom advocates sounded the alarm yet again regarding the escalating threats against journalists.

A stifling and restrictive environment for freedom of expression and the press in Egypt is visible in the way journalists and media workers find themselves caught in an intricate and complex web of bureaucratic measures, laws and regulations whose primary function is to impede independent, critical reporting and entrench the state’s censorship over content to ultimately establish control over narrative.

Journalist Ahmed Shaker from state-owned newspaper Rose al-Youssef was detained by the State Security Prosecution on allegations of “joining a terrorist group” last week. Journalists Soulafa Magdy, Hossam al-Sayyad, and Mohamed Salah appeared before the same prosecution a few days earlier after they were arrested in a raid on a cafe in the Giza neighborhood of Dokki. Magdy and Salah face potential charges of publishing false news, while al-Sayyad faces allegations of joining a terrorist group.

A few kilometers away and days prior, one of the very few remaining independent Egyptian news outlets, Mada Masr, was raided by unidentified security forces in what became an international spectacle. Several high level foreign government officials, including the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, made public statements urging the Egyptian government to respect freedom of the press. Several of Mada’s staff members were arrested from their office before being released a few hours later in a turn of events that some ascribe to the strong influence of a swift solidarity campaigns and foreign pressure, while others point to a last-minute intervention by “high-level political and security officials.” Regardless of the reasons behind this “miracle” of a release as described by Editor-in-Chief Lina Attalah, smear campaigns and the looming existential threat to Mada continue.

A state security prosecution statement published a day after the raid claimed that the search of Mada’s office was in fact “legal,” citing national security investigations that alleged the platform was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood with the purpose of “spreading false news.” Meanwhile, Egypt’s foreign ministry offered a different legal justification, in which it argued that Mada was operating without the proper licenses.

Yet, Mada reported at several instances that it had applied for a license under the Law Regulating the Press, Media, and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), Law No. 180 of 2018, over a year ago, and has yet to receive a response. The website was also among hundreds blocked in 2017 and had limited ability to appeal the decision, as the entity behind it was not disclosed.
Mada’s convoluted legal status is but a reflection of wider inconsistencies and inaccuracies within the vast legal lexicon and bureaucratic instruments governing the media, and delineating the ever-expanding scope of what constitutes terms like “false news” and “rumors.”

Incomplete, inconsistent media governance framework

The SCMR law explicitly prohibits the press, media, and websites from publishing or broadcasting “false news,” allowing the censorship of content deemed to be so. The law further incorporates personal websites, blogs, and social media accounts with 5,000 followers or more as subjects of its oversight. With no explicit definition for “false news,” the law grants authorities the discretion to censor or block content that violates the Egyptian Constitution, professional ethics, and public order or morals, among other vaguely-defined standards. A list of sanctions prepared by the SCMR and published in March 2019 further elaborates on these violations and their penalties that include imposing fines, disciplinary action and banning distribution and broadcast.

The law’s executive regulations, however, have yet to be issued, despite the fact that should have been done within three months of the law’s ratification. In the past few days reports signaled a growing sentiment within parliament to minimize the role of the SCMR and re-establish the Ministry of Information, as part of a sign of general discontent with current media oversight by the state. SCMR Chief Makram Mohamed Ahmed predictably rejected such calls, arguing that the move would “threaten media freedom” by bringing supervision under the auspices of the executive branch. He also announced that the council has finalized the bylaws that will regulate the licensing of newspapers, websites, and media outlets and will send it to the cabinet for approval in a matter of days. The repeated delays, however, have caused significant disruptions for existing media outlets, including 150 of them that had already filed their application requests to the SCMR and have not received a response to date.

Media freedoms in general have been in severe decline since president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi took office in 2014. According to Justin Shilad, Senior Researcher on the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Egypt is by far the world’s leader when it comes to journalists imprisoned on “false news charges,” with at least 19 behind bars on this charge as of December 2018.

More laws, broader discretion over content

Alongside the bureaucratic hurdles placed in the way of obtaining licenses, other legal codes are used for increasing control over published content and eliminating the space for alternative narratives to that of the state.

The prohibition on spreading “false news” and rumors is not only entrenched in the language of the media law, but also in the Penal Code, cybercrime, and counter-terrorism laws. The Counter-terrorism Law stipulates penalties for publishing “false news” about terrorist acts or counter-terror operations, thus deeming the publication of any information that is contrary to official statements as illegal. This has effectively curtailed any independent reporting on the country’s security situation, leading to several instances of media paralysis regarding sensitive security-related events, as was evident in the case of the National Cancer Institute explosion, when media coverage was largely absent as the incident unfolded, with outlets waiting on the interior ministry’s statements.

These restrictions exist in addition to articles 80(c), 80 (d), 102, and 188 of the Penal Code. The first article addresses the “deliberate” broadcast of false news, statements and rumors in wartime, while the second penalizes the same act but when done from abroad and with the intention of “weakening the financial confidence or prestige of the state” or in any way harmful to the national interest. Articles 102 and 188 address the same issue but with a focus on intent to “disrupt public security, terrorize people or inflict damage to public interest.”

The Cybercrime Law also does not explicitly reference “publishing false news” as a violation, but utilizes similar language regarding censorship. It empowers investigative authorities to submit judicial requests or, in urgent cases, directly requests to the National Telecom Regulatory Agency to censor and block websites that have published content that constitutes crimes per the law and pose threats to national security or the national economy.

Despite this wide expanse of existing legal codes that entrench the state’s control over narrative through arguably similar vernacular, a bill was proposed in March to “counter rumors” spread by “groups or individuals” to undermine state stability. In November, and around a month after spontaneous protests erupted across several Egyptian governorates against allegations of corruption within military ranks, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel ‘Al referred the draft law to the constitutional and legislative affairs committee for further discussion.

The proposed bill stipulates a prison sentence ranging from six months to three years and fines between LE 10,000 and LE 100,000 against anyone who “creates, promotes, enlists, or publishes a false rumor.”

Most importantly, the bill’s explanatory note deems the proliferation of rumors as a “national security threat.” Addressing this perceived threat has become the driving force behind numerous state actions on various fronts; including through legal, judicial and executive instruments.

Expanding and entrenching state monitoring

The Public Prosecution has established an entire department that administers its own social media presence and circulates press statements, while also monitoring published content that relates to it. This approach began in February 2018 when a public prosecution decree assigned responsibility to prosecutors to identify “false news, statistics, or rumors” that harm national interest, urging them to take any necessary legal action when such content is found.

As demonstrated in the prosecution’s statement following the September protests and its newly established department, mobile phones and social media accounts are now treated as significant pieces of evidence that constitute valuable information that require different methods for monitoring and legal prosecution. In its statement, the prosecution directly implicated admins of Facebook pages for initiating “false rumors” and “inciting” people to join the protests.

Ultimately, those who live streamed the protests, commented on them, or even happened to be there with mobile phones were deemed as suspects. Over 4,000 people were detained in the wake of the protests, according to rights groups. While these included arbitrary arrests in the immediate aftermath, subsequent arrests also targeted activists, university professors, lawyers, journalists, and political opposition figures.

As the lines blur between traditional media outlets, yet-to-be licensed news platforms, and citizen journalism, there is an increasing threat against journalists like Soulafa Magdy and others who resort to innovative means of publishing when traditional ones are off limits. Magdy founded “Everyday Footage,” a first of its kind school with the purpose of teaching mobile journalism for journalists and others interested in documentation. Meanwhile, Mada, with its unique form of adversarial journalism, circumvents a prolonged domestic block by publishing on its social media accounts and creating successive mirror sites.

At this juncture, such cases run the imminent risk of incrimination by any combination of the aforementioned instruments designed to strengthen state grip on media and online content. The abundance of legislation addressing the same issue, but with different tactics, language and levels of punishment also has the potential to trigger “legislative conflicts” and uncertainty as to which text should apply to a given case.

Loose ends exhibited by the absence of executive bylaws to accompany an already controversial media law, along with an expansive legal corpus and pervasive surveillance methods, make for a vulnerable environment for freedom of expression and press in Egypt.

This precarity is illustrated by the puzzling, ye t indicative clash of narratives given by the foreign ministry spokesperson, who accused Mada Masr of “operating without the necessary authorization” at the same time when the Head of the State Information Service Diaa Rashwan reassured the Mada staff that their status was in fact “legal.” as they had submitted the required application Each authority’s basis of what constitutes this (il-)legality of one institution remains open to interpretation and much skepticism.