As Egypt prepares to hold a presidential election on 26-28 March, an election with a highly predictable outcome, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) details the reasons for its deep concern about the fate of press freedom in a country reduced to silence by the incumbent.
In Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's Egypt, even doing a report on the charm of Alexandria's antiquated trams is risky. Two journalists were arrested on 28 February while doing precisely that, and were jailed for 15 days for suspected terrorism and for being in possession of "photographic equipment" that could be used to spread "fake news."
The incident is symptomatic of the mediaphobia that has taken hold since the military retook power in 2013. The explosion of media activity in 2012 and 2012, after President Hosni Mubarak's removal, is well and truly over. Four years after Sisi got himself elected president with 96.9% of the vote, he is about to be reelected at the head of a country that is now muzzled, a country in which the media are the new enemy.
President Sisi himself directly warned journalists on 1 March that defaming or insulting the police or army would now be regarded as an act of "treason." Egypt's chief prosecutor has ordered subordinates to "scrutinize" the media and social networks in order to "arrest those who serve the forces of evil by deliberately spreading false news liable to undermine security and state interests."
Nowadays media outlets that do not explicitly demonstrate their loyalty to the regime are accused of "conspiracy." The public is even asked to contact the authorities by phone, text message or WhatsApp if they see any media or online content that could harm Egypt's image. Since Sisi's takeover and especially at times of tension, as in 2013 and now, opposition journalists, independent journalists, media personalities and even ordinary freelance reporters have been exposed to the possibility of arbitrary prosecution, scapegoating by the authorities and even, when on the street, being reported to the police by passers-by who are now suspicious of all journalists.
"The extremely high level of suspicion and hostility towards the media in Egypt has had dramatic consequences," RSF said. "More and more journalists are being imprisoned and accused of terrorism just for trying to gather independent information. The authorities have silenced the Egyptian media and are discrediting the foreign media. We reiterate our call for the release of arbitrarily detained journalists and an end to the intimidation of independent media outlets."
One of the biggest jailer of journalists
At the end of 2012, only one blogger was behind bars, on a blasphemy charge, while another blogger, the well-known activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, had spent a few months in prison in the course of the year before.
Five years later, Alaa is in prison again, only this time he has been there for the past three years and is one of at least 30 Egyptian journalists held in connection with their reporting. The reasons for their arrests have been varied. Some were covering sensitive subjects such as the army, police or terrorism. They include Ismail Alexandrani, an expert on the Sinai and extremist groups, who has been held without trial for more than two years.
The journalist Moataz Wednan was arrested last month for an interview with an ally of a presidential candidate. Others have been prosecuted for interviews about the cost of living, the soaring inflation or the financial difficulties of ordinary Egyptian families.
"Endangering national security," "membership of a terrorist group," "fake news" and even attempted murder are among the other charges that have been used to arrest journalists suspected of working for media outlets deemed to support the now banned Muslim Brotherhood. Dozens of journalists have been arrested in the past six months in what seems to be a witch hunt against journalists working for opposition media.
When the journalist Mahmoud Hussein arrived in Cairo in December 2016 to spend a few days with his family, he was arrested simply because he works for Al Jazeera, which is banned in Egypt because it is funded by the Qatari government and is regarded as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hussein has been held ever since.
In May 2016, a military court sentenced two young citizen-journalists, Omar Ibrahim Mohamed Ali and Soheib Saad, to life imprisonment. They had worked for Al Jazeera. Before their trial, they were held incommunicado for a month and reportedly tortured and then finally appeared in a defence ministry video in which, according to the ministry, they made "terrorist confessions."
The absurdity of the charges brought against journalists is often matched by the disproportionate nature of their sentences. Prosecutors have just requested the death sentence for Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a photojournalist better known as Shawkan. He is one of the hundreds of defendants in a mass trial of people who were arrested when a protest in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square was dispersed in August 2013. The authorities have never taken account of the fact that he was there simply to take photos for the British photo agency Demotix.
Intimidation stoked by government media, social networks
Prosecutions are used with such abandon to deter coverage of certain subjects that no one is spared, not even the daily Al Masry Al Youm's wealthy businessman owner, who was accused of illegal possession of firearms in 2015, at a time when the newspaper was criticizing police methods. The foreign media are also aware they are liable to be targeted at any time by a regime that no longer hesitates to call for a boycott of even such a prestigious international broadcaster as the BBC.
Pro-government media and social network users help to amplify the fear and hatred of the media that the government is promoting.
Khaled el Balshy, the editor of the online newspaper Bedayah and a tireless defender of journalists, was recently the target of a media smear campaign. BBC reporter Wael Hussein was the victim of a campaign of insults on Facebook and abuse on Twitter that forced him to close his account. The citizen-journalist Wael Abbas was targeted by trolls who forced the closure of his Twitter account in November, resulting in the loss of a part of his ten years of coverage of police abuses.
Censorship has become ubiquitous in the past five years and takes many forms. These forms include such traditional methods as printing or distribution bans, telephone calls from intelligence officials requesting the removal of an article, the many "gag orders", and the closure of media outlets that are deemed to support the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Al Jazeera in 2013.
Censorship took a new form in the spring of 2017. Without any court order or official explanation, access was blocked to dozens and then hundreds of websites. Around 500 sites are now inaccessible, including the RSF site, the Human Right Watch site, the sites of respected local NGOs such as ANHRI, and the sites of left-wing Egyptian newspapers such as Bedayah and MadaMasr that cannot be accused of Islamist sympathies.
Uniform, compliant media
The suppression of all news that could potentially be regarded as critical results in even wider coverage of what government officials have to say.
Journalists with privately-owned media concentrate on censoring themselves to survive, to avoid having to flee abroad or to avoid being expelled, as Liliane Daoud, a journalist with British and Lebanese dual nationality, was in 2016. As a result, most of the media landscape is now occupied by state-owned media or by privately-owned media that have been acquired by business groups linked to the intelligence services.
Throughout the election campaign, the approved media have done nothing but talk of the patriotic duty of voting in order to ensure that Field Marshal Sisi gets another term as president, even though the election result is known in advance.
It is safe to assume that little else will be covered for the next few days in Egypt, which has received a consistently poor ranking in RSF's Press Freedom Index for the past five years and is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in the 2017 Index.