The Egyptians are going to vote in the presidential elections amid harsh press censorship. This is happening both to local and international media outlets working in Egypt. For this reason, on March 7, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, accused Egyptian authorities of creating a “pervasive climate of intimidation” after freedom of expression for local media was suppressed. In this report, the UN criticised several measures taken by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before the 2018 presidential elections. “Legislation prevents candidates and supporters from organising rallies. Independent media have been silenced, with over 400 media and NGO websites completely blocked”, the report argued.
“The shadow over Egypt” and the BBC case
Egyptian authorities harshly criticised a BBC documentary produced by the British public television correspondent, Orla Guerin. In “The shadow over Egypt”, the mother of a young Egyptian woman, victim of “enforced disappearance”, Zubeida Ibrahim, was interviewed. The BBC's broadcast focused on the constant human rights' violations occurring in Egypt.
Egyptian State Information Services (SIS) harshly criticised the BBC report and called it “baseless and full of lies”, especially in reference to the awful description, given in the British documentary, of the human rights' violations in prison. The victim of the violence, Zubeida Ibrahim, recently appeared on the TV talk-show al-Youm, denying her mother's claims. However, many observers expressed doubts about the authenticity of her interview. Her mother was later arrested on suspicion of spreading “fake news”.
Following the broadcast, SIS demanded a boycott of the BBC. This was a good occasion for the local authorities to stigmatise all foreign media based in Egypt. According to a SIS statement, foreign broadcasts should never publish news that has not been previously approved by pro-government agencies. According to the Reuters correspondent in Cairo, Eric Knecht, this is a clear attempt to intimidate in more general terms all foreign correspondents based in Egypt.
The most recent case of censorship involved Mohammad Hashem, a young atheist, invited as a guest on the TV show al-Hadath al-Youm in a debate with a sheikh of al-Azhar, Mahmoud Ashour. Before expelling him from the broadcast for his “disruptive and inappropriate ideas”, sheikh Ashour and the TV presenter Abd al-Halim suggested that Hashem should go directly to “a psychiatric hospital” for his behaviour. After the July 3, 2013 military coup, anti-atheist and anti-LGBT campaigns have been conducted by the Egyptian authorities in order to demonstrate their «moral commitments», despite the harsh repression of moderate Islamists.
Censoring the Internet
Following the arrests of journalists and TV hosts in recent weeks, many human rights NGOs asked the Egyptian authorities to put an end to the “ongoing campaign of intimidation”.
But the censorship has been even harsher on the Internet. The latest move, after blocking the main independent media outlets, is censorship of cryptocurrency websites. This happened using the same hardware utilised to block al-Jazeera and Human Rights Watch websites. The think tank Citizen Lab analysed the means of web control used in Egypt and found evidence of important similarities with the techniques used in Turkey and Syria aimed at controlling cyber-activism.
Last February, the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) of Google went offline in Egypt, thus blocking access through mobile phones to international and independent websites. The Committee for Journalists' Protection (CPJ) demanded that the local authorities ensure facilitated access for Egyptians to information sources during the electoral campaign. However, according to the Association for Freedom of Expression and Thought (AFTE), the major international websites recently blocked in Egypt are The Washington Post and The New York Times, together with the local independent blog Maswry. The New York Times, especially, has been harshly criticised for a report on the Israeli military involvement in the Sinai Peninsula.
After freedom of expression flourished in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, a law that prevented it brought about the closure of independent media in Egypt, including the Arabic and English versions of the independent blog Mada Masr and the al-Jazeera office in Cairo, with the notorious trial against its journalists. One of the major protests involving Egyptian journalists took place in front of the Cairo Journalist Syndicate against the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia in March 2016. Since then, the cases of journalists arrested or threatened in Egypt have been dozens. One of the latest cases is that of the blogger, Islam al-Refaie, who is still under pre-trial custody. Arrested in November 2017, al-Refaie has been accused of being a member of the outlawed organization of the Muslim Brotherhood and of organising unauthorised demonstrations. In a related case, the public prosecutors asked for the death penalty for the photojournalist, Mahmoud Abou Zeid, better known as Shawkan, who has been in prison for more than four years for his coverage of the Rabaa al-Adaweya massacre in 2013.
The control over local media, purportedly part of the fight against terrorism, has been even harsher during the electoral campaign in Egypt, preventing an open debate before the presidential elections. In recent months the Egyptian military regime spread disinformation and extended its constant censorship over the local and Arab press to foreign, English and innovative media, in order to filter the potential diffusion of critical news during the short electoral campaign, and to completely shut down the remaining spaces of freedom of expression and dissent.