While stressing the importance of reliable information about Covid-19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the Egyptian authorities to be more transparent about their grounds for blocking websites in recent weeks that allegedly spread "false information" about the coronavirus crisis.
The Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), Egypt's main media regulator, has announced blocking or limiting access to a dozen news websites and social media accounts since early March for spreading "rumours" about the pandemic, but it has not systematically identified the targets or specified the allegedly false information.
Several Egyptian sources confirm that the news website Huna Aden and the website of the daily newspaper El Gomhoria El Youm were notified on 15 March that they would be blocked for six months.
A few days before that, the SCMR summoned the newspaper's legal representative in connection with an article suggesting that the public health ministry had found a treatment for the coronavirus. Six Facebook and Twitter accounts were also blocked at around this same time without any details being given.
Two weeks later, at the end of March, the SCMR examined a complaint from the health ministry accusing a media outlet of quoting the ministry as having said things it never actually said and of "questioning the ability of the public hospitals" to cope with the public health crisis.
This time, four Facebook and Instagram pages were blocked and the SCMR accused the accounts responsible for these pages of "inciting violation of the preventive measures taken by the state" against the pandemic.
A commercial TV channel, which has not been named, was given a warning after it referred on the air to a shortage of medicine. The SCMR is now considering the possibility of blocking 12 other webpages and is due to meet soon to take a decision.
"Reliable, quality information is essential during this pandemic but the information must also be freely and independently reported," said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF's Middle East desk. "The Egyptian authorities must be more transparent about their reasons for blocking these online reports and must be able to prove that they were published with the real intention of spreading rumours and 'disturbing public order'."
Guardian reporter Ruth Michaelson was expelled from Egypt on 20 March over an article quoting a report by medical researchers that questioned the Egyptian government's coronavirus figures. The authorities accused her of "deliberate deception on a serious subject" and of basing her story on just one source.
Since 2018, Egyptian law allows the authorities, the SCMR in particular, to censor online media outlets, websites and personal social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers. More than 500 websites, including RSF's, have so far been blocked for "disseminating false information."
Egypt is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.