December 23, 2016, was supposed to be a happy day for Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, as he travelled to Cairo to visit his family. But that day turned into a tragedy for him and his loved ones. Upon his arrival, the Egyptian authorities hauled him off to prison, where he has remained for two years now, facing several charges, including “spreading false information”. He is yet to receive anything remotely resembling a fair trial or even adequate medical care.
Just weeks before Hussein was detained, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced that nine journalists were in jail globally on charges related to “fake news”. Hussein became the 10th.
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Even though the precedent had already been set with such a charge, accusations of spreading false information levelled against journalists increased exponentially after the election of US President Donald Trump that year. His constant use of the term “fake news” to attack media critical of his policies and actions popularised the term as a rhetorical broadside globally.
Today “fake news” is regularly evoked against inconvenient reporting not just by the usual authoritarian suspects, such as in Russia, Syria and Venezuela, but also by governments in relatively democratic countries, including the Philippines, Poland, and Spain.
Legislation criminalising any news reporting that contradicts official information has also proliferated in recent years across the world. Such laws basically determine what reality is – ie, it can be nothing else but the official narrative. In this sense, “fake news” has not only enabled crackdowns on journalists, but it has also become a legal and rhetorical tool for delegitimising the very notion of independent reporting.
As of December 1, 2018, 28 journalists worldwide are behind bars on “fake news” charges. This alarming statistic demonstrates how “fake news” has mutated from a rhetorical cudgel to a legislation-backed weapon employed to silence reporters.
Cameroonian journalist Mimi Mefo was detained in November this year and accused of publishing “false information” after she reported on the killing of American missionary Charles Wesco and the instability in the country’s Anglophone region. Maria Ressa, founder and executive editor of the news website Rappler, is facing a slew of tax evasion-related charges after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lambasted the media outlet as “fake news” for its critical coverage of his administration.
But the grand champion of persecuting journalists through “fake news” charges has been Egypt: 19 of those 28 journalists imprisoned on such charges worldwide are Egyptians.
In fact, the Egyptian leadership has had the dubious honour of being a trendsetter in the use of “fake news” accusations against journalists: among the first journalists to be hit with these charges were Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, who were arrested on December 29, 2013.
Mohamed, Fahmy, and Greste were later freed after more than a year in detention, but more journalists would take their place. In 2015, Egypt passed anti-terror legislation that specifically made it a crime to dispute official accounts of terror attacks. Since then, more and more journalists have been imprisoned in Egypt, and false information charges figure ever more prominently in the justification for their detention.
Egypt has also resorted to mass trials of media professionals. As of December 1 this year, at least 12 Egyptian journalists have been charged under case 441/2018 with “spreading false information”. Among them was Wael Abbas, a prominent blogger, who was arrested on May 23 and only freed from custody earlier this month. This case demonstrates how indiscriminate Egyptian authorities have become in their crackdown on the media.
With at least 25 journalists behind bars (19 of whom accused of spreading “false information”), Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is betting on the silence of the international community, so he can continue to muzzle dissident voices unobstructed. In doing so he has even taken on international institutions.
In April, the Egyptian foreign ministry slammed UNESCO for awarding detained photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid the 2018 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize. Abou Zeid was supposed to be released by now after being sentenced in September this year to five years in prison (which he has already served) in the mass trial of the Rabaa sit-in dispersal; he was charged along with other defendants of organising an armed gathering and resisting the authorities, although he gone to the sit-in to cover it as a journalist. By now, his detention is illegal under Egyptian law and prosecutors are saying that he may not be released until February next year.
The international community must demand the release of Abou Zeid, Hussein and all other unjustly detained journalists in Egypt. An international campaign recently helped Abbas get released from detention. This means the Egyptian leadership clearly cares about its image internationally and therefore, we must keep up the pressure.
We must continue to draw public attention to Egypt’s imprisoned journalists and call out Sisi’s weaponisation of “fake news”. And we must also push back against the increasing prevalence of “fake news” rhetoric which threatens to criminalise journalists around the globe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.