It has been eight years since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the Arab Spring uprising that briefly liberated Egyptians and their media from life under the one-man rule. Fast-forward to the present day and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government is doubling down, tripling down on controlling the news media - measures that rights groups say are unprecedented in the country's recent history.

"For the first time ever in Egypt's history, those military rulers, who are almost half gods and immune against any kind of accountability or media criticism, found themselves being described in Egyptian media and social media as liars or deceivers or oppressors and they definitely didn't like that," explains Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

When a government wants to transform a media landscape the place to start is at the ownership level. ONTV is a channel that used to air lively political debates. Like many other outlets with new owners, it now toes the government line.

In 2016, the state intelligence agency, the GIS, launched its own channel, DMC. Then last year, the GIS was revealed to be behind an investment group called Eagle Capital that has bought six newspapers and websites, including a site Youm7, as well as ONTV.

It's like the CIA starting its own channel in the US, while quietly buying CNN and Buzzfeed, and hoping that no one would notice.

Sisi's government is emphasizing a "security discourse basically," explains Marwa Mazaid, comparative media and politics researcher at the University of Washington. "The ownership by the intelligence agencies changed the editorial line in some of these private companies by actually either making it completely entertainment and just like movies and sports and such. Or advocating for a very pro-state, nationalistic, protective, kind of discourse."

The legal landscape is changing, too. Late last year, Egypt's media regulator, the SMRC, proposed a new law that would allow the state to block broadcasts and websites for breaking rules that were so ambiguously defined that hundreds of journalists, politicians and public figures petitioned for the abolition of a law that had yet to pass.

Among the laws that have: a so-called "cybersecurity law", that under the pretext of stopping "fake news", restricts online journalism and encourages service providers to collect and share data on users. And there's a new registration law requiring online news sites to pay more than $34,000 just to apply for a licence. If enforced, it will put many sites out of business and discourage others from ever starting up.

To make matters worse, the government's intelligence apparatus, "They have now started infiltrating things like Facebook and Messenger and WhatsApp," points out Dalia Fahmy, an associate professor of political science at Long Island University. "And if, for example, you forward messages on WhatsApp to several individuals, what you get is this dissemination of false information charged under the terrorism law. And so, this chilling of society and of activism, has now entered this realm of cyberspace where people cannot even report on reality."

With the margins of acceptable speech narrower than ever and journalists expected to demonstrate complete loyalty to the state, discerning truth in Egypt from propaganda, gets more difficult by the day.

Contributors

Marwa Maziad - Comparative media and politics researcher, University of Washington
Dalia Fahmy - Associate professor of political science, Long Island University
Amr Magdi - Researcher, Human Rights Watch
Ahmed Samih - Director, Andalus Institute

Source: Al Jazeera