TIMEP Brief: Press Freedom in Egypt

Protest outside the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists (Face-Masr)
By: TIMEP

05-03-2017

  • The Egyptian government uses policies ranging from harassment and imprisonment of individual journalists to media blackouts and channel closures to stifle freedom of the press.
  • In 2016, Egypt had 25 journalists in prison and was ranked as the third-worst jailer of journalists in the world.
  • Following the police storming the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists for the first time in Egyptian history and the ratification a law that created a new media monitoring body with the power to fine or suspend media outlets, Egypt was ranked 161 of 180 countries surveyed for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders in 2017.
  • This repression has stifled the ability of independent and critical media to hold the government to account.


Overall Situation:

Despite some hopeful openings for independent media after the 2011 revolution, Egypt today is among the world’s worst offenders against press freedom. While Egypt’s current constitution theoretically promotes a free press, bans censorship, and ensures press independence, these rights are not protected in practice. The government has frequently imprisoned journalists, blocked them from reporting, targeted critical or independent news outlets for closure, and arrested officials from the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists. Egypt was ranked as the third-worst jailer of journalists worldwide in 2016 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, with 25 journalists in jail. The country was also ranked 161 of 180 countries surveyed for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 report, which was released a few weeks after a large daily paper had two days of print runs confiscated for being critical of the security services. Police forces stormed the journalists syndicate on May 1, 2016, and arrested two journalists inside for the first time in Egyptian history. In December 2016, the country adopted a new media law creating a new oversight body with the power to fine or suspend outlets and revoke licenses of foreign media outlets. Furthermore, the arrest and detention of an Al Jazeera journalist and the investigation into journalist and talk-show host Ibrahim Eissa for “insulting the parliament” in early 2017 indicate that the state intends to continue to target individual journalists as well as media outlets.

Background:
Under former President Hosni Mubarak, the press and journalists were targeted in ways that we also see today. Journalists were pressured out of work, attacked by security forces, arrested for covering sensitive issues, and unjustly detained. Despite a temporary relaxing of press freedoms in 2011, the Egyptian state’s violations of press freedom following the January 25 Revolution include outlet closures as well as the deaths, arrests, and sentencing of Egyptian and foreign journalists. One such case is that of three Al Jazeera journalists—Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed—arrested in December 2013, which grabbed international headlines. The three men were originally found found guilty of spreading false news and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, and sentenced to between seven and 10 years in prison. Following an international outcry, Australian Greste was deported, while Fahmy and Mohamed were eventually pardoned by President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi in September 2015. While the eventual outcome of the Al Jazeera case was unusual, the journalists’ arrest was not. Another case that has drawn international attention is that of detained photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, otherwise known as Shawkan, who was given the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2016. Shawkan was detained in August 2013, and spent over two years in pretrial detention (in violation of legal limits) before being formally charged. He remains in prison as his trial is ongoing.

Security forces target both individual journalists as well as the journalists syndicate, as illustrated by the cases of journalists Mahmoud al-Sakka and Amr Badr, who were arrested in May 2016 from the union’s headquarters and were granted release on bail in September 2016. At one point, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry argued that they had been arrested on suspicion of incitement to assassinate President Sisi. Their arrest from the syndicate building led to the arrest and trial of four union officials on charges of spreading false news and harboring fugitives, which eventually resulted in prison sentences for three board members, including syndicate head Yehia Qallash (an appeal is pending). Attacks against journalists by security personnel are common: in April 2017, the Journalists Against Torture Observatory released a report, documenting 150 attacks on journalists in the first quarter of 2017.

The government has moved to ban privately owned news outlets, including Al Jazeera, for coverage it views as biased or inciting to violence. In January 2015, Sisi issued a decree giving the prime minister the power to ban any foreign publication “offensive to religion.” Egypt’s State Council administrative court similarly ordered the closure of four television channels—Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr, Ahrar 25, Al-Quds and Al-Yarmuk—pegged as sympathizers with the now-disbanded Muslim Brotherhood.

Media gag orders are used to prevent reporting on sensitive issues, like the killing of Mexican tourists by the Egyptian military or the assassination of Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat. The 2015 Counter-terrorism Law also allows for media censorship, as it forbids journalists from publishing information that contradicts official government accounts of militant violence. Self-censorship is also becoming more common among Egyptian media outlets, like when a group of Egyptian newspapers editors signed a statement in 2014 pledging to limit criticism of state institutions.

Government officials and politicians in Egypt have rejected accusations that the state is targeting press freedom, while failing to protect that same freedom. Sisi has often refused to pardon journalists, arguing that his government “will not interfere in judicial rulings,” and instead should “respect judicial rulings and not criticize them.” In August 2015, Sisi stated that no journalists in Egypt are being jailed for crimes related to publishing after a meeting with editors of various African newspapers. Egypt’s foreign minister declared in August 2015, that no journalists are in jail in Egypt for doing their job; he claimed that all detained journalists have been implicated for terrorist activities or have broken the law.

Analysis and Areas of Concern:
While suppression of press freedoms was common under Mubarak, it has become more overt under Sisi. Arrests of individual journalists, targeting of independent news outlets, and harassment of the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists are all designed to suppress independent news voices and criticism of state policies. Assurances by Egyptian officials that there is no targeting of independent media ring hollow when the country ranks third internationally for the number of journalists imprisoned and is considered to have less press freedom than countries like Turkey and Russia. The imprisonment of journalists is just one approach used by the government to stifle press freedom; targeting of critical outlets, attacks on the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists, and the prevention of reporting on critical issues all contribute to a repressive media environment in the country, with the primary aim of limiting criticism of the state. While direct harassment and targeting are common, the most effective tactics are more subtle, like buying out private media, threats as with Bassem Youssef, and co-opting owners of private media.

TIMEP Coverage:

  • In May 2016, TIMEP published a press release condemning the raid by Egyptian authorities on the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo and the detention of syndicate board members.
  • In 2015, contributor Basil El-Dabh wrote “Breaking News and Inconsistent Media Standards in Egypt,” a reporter’s perspective on covering events in Egypt.
  • In 2016, fellow Mohamed Adam wrote a commentary piece, “The Struggle in Egypt’s Press Syndicate,” which examined the protests and arrests around the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists.

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