Journalism in Egypt has effectively become a crime over the past four years, as authorities clamp down on media outlets and muzzle dissent, Amnesty International has said in a new report.
As the number of coronavirus infections in Egypt continues to rise, the government is strengthening its control over information instead of upholding transparency during the crisis, according to the London-based rights group’s report on Sunday.
“The Egyptian authorities have made it very clear that anyone who challenges the official narrative will be severely punished,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director.
Amnesty documented 37 cases of journalists arrested in the government’s escalating crackdown on press freedom, many charged with “spreading false news” or “misusing social media” under a broad 2015 counterterrorism law that has expanded the definition of terror to include all kinds of dissent.
Marking World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, Amnesty urged Egyptian authorities to halt their censorship, harassment and intimidation of journalists – and to release those held “solely for carrying out their work”.
There was no comment by Egypt’s government but authorities have previously denied rights violations and justified arrests on national security grounds.
Among the media workers imprisoned in Egypt is Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Hussein, a Doha-based journalist who was arrested in 2016 during a visit to his family in Cairo.
He has been detained without charge for more than 1,200 days, and there are concerns for his health during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mostefa Souag, Al Jazeera Media Network’s director general, called on the world leaders in a letter published on Sunday to join “the call to action for the immediate release of Mahmoud Hussein and all other journalists imprisoned around the world”.
“At Al Jazeera we stand in solidarity with all our colleagues in the media,” he said. “We believe that no journalist should be intimidated, persecuted or imprisoned for carrying out their duty. We believe in the fundamental truth that freedom of speech is the very basic building block to uphold the values of democracy.”
Since general-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in 2013, most of Egypt’s television programmes and newspapers have taken the government position and steered clear of criticism, or else disappeared.
Many privately-owned Egyptian news outlets have been quietly acquired by companies affiliated with the country’s intelligence service.
But even a pro-government voice has not spared 12 journalists working for state-owned media outlets, who have landed in jail for expressing various private views on social media, Amnesty’s report said.
One of them is Atef Hasballah, editor-in-chief of the AlkararPress website. When he challenged the health ministry’s coronavirus case count on his Facebook page last month, he was promptly arrested on suspicion of “joining a terrorist organisation”.
Egypt’s public prosecutor warned in a recent statement that those who spread “false news” about the coronavirus pandemic may face up to five years imprisonment and steep fines.
At least 12 individuals have so far been caught up in the coronavirus-motivated crackdown, according to Amnesty.
Last month, authorities blocked a local news site that covered calls by activists to release political prisoners over fears of the coronavirus spreading in Egypt’s crowded prisons.
Separately, Egypt expelled a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper over an article that indicated the coronavirus infection rate may be higher than officially reported.
The journalists interviewed by Amnesty reported increasingly direct state intervention in their coverage.
Many working for government-owned or aligned papers said they receive specific instructions via WhatsApp on what to report and what to omit.
For instance, a directive on how to handle United States President Donald Trump’s proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this year asked reporters not to mention the plan’s violations of long-standing Arab policies, as Trump and el-Sisi have cultivated close ties.
Those who do not tow the official line, including praising prison conditions and smearing the state’s political opponents, “lost their jobs, were interrogated or imprisoned”, one journalist was quoted as saying by Amnesty.
“I cannot even imagine that someone could refuse to comply.”