Dealt “deadly blows” by the regime, freedom of press in Egypt is disappearing

Dealt “deadly blows” by the regime, freedom of press in Egypt is disappearing

A vendor sells newspapers in Cairo in December 2018. The front pages of Egyptian newspapers tend to look more and more alike each day. Both written and televised media have become a means of propaganda for the military regime.

(Jamal Boukhari)

In Egypt, the media world is in a state of shock. The last privately-owned news channel has just been taken over by the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, or ’Mukhabarat’ in Arabic. In September, Elam al-Masryien (the Egyptian Media Group), a dummy media company controlled by the Mukhabarat, took over all the shares of TV CBC, one of Egypt’s largest television networks.

A few days later, the company, currently headed by former Mukhabarat officer Yasser Selim, decided to cancel the political programme Hona al-Assema (Here’s the Capital), hosted by Lamis al-Hadidi, the ’Oprah Winfrey of Egypt.’ Al-Hadidi had refused to turn her political show into pure entertainment. Elam al-Masryein also fired half of the staff of Extra News, Egypt’s last remaining private news channel. At the same time, the military intelligence service quietly launched the DMC News channel to compete with Al-Jazeera and Sky News in the Middle East, and to place Cairo at the centre of the region’s media landscape.

These recent decisions by the Egyptian intelligence services show that the state doesn’t simply want to silence the media; it wants to become the sole source of information to enter Egyptian households. Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 161st in its 2018 Press Freedom Index.

Discrete nationalisation

In a video published on his Facebook page in August 2018, star host Tamer Abdel Moneim of the al-Assema network openly accused the Mukhabarat of ruining the media in Egypt and firing political hosts. Like many others, Moneim was dismissed a few days after TV networks al-Assema and al-Hayat were taken over by the Elam al-Masryien group. Even though he was an anti-revolutionary who openly supported president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, last re-elected in March with 97 per cent of the vote, Moneim committed a crucial error: he talked about politics on live television.

The Elam al-Masryien group began its rapid expansion in May 2016 by targeting the ON network, the last remaining media platform for the revolutionaries of the Tahrir Square movement. The day after the takeover, the presenters were dismissed. In July 2018, news channel ON LIVE permanently closed its doors.

“The Egyptian Mukhabarat always uses front companies, often run by civilians or former officers, to quietly take hold of the media,” Said Sadek, a professor of media studies at the American University of Cairo, told Equal Times.

Elam al-Masryien extended its influence by buying independent news sites such as Dotmasr, al-Ayen (the eye), Enfrad, Egypt Today and Business Today. According to the group’s website, it has also taken over Youm al-Sabe (seventh day), Egypt’s most visited news site.

In December 2017, the General Intelligence Directorate founded a large sovereign investment fund under the name Eagle Capital to run its media empire, which includes Elam al-Masryien. Headed by Dalia Khorshid, former Minister of Investment and a close ally of President Sisi, Eagle Capital now controls more than 65 per cent of Egyptian media (newspapers, television stations and websites).

Not to be outdone in this race for control, the military intelligence service, known as ’Mukhabarat Harbeya’, created the media company D-Media in 2015. It now controls the DMC television network and three other platforms. “Egypt’s generals believe that the media played a significant role in the Arab Spring, as well as in the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013,” says Hicham Qassem, editor of the daily al-Masry Alyoum. There was an unspoken agreement between the newspapers – mostly run by businessmen with an interest in working with the government – and the regime that the media would turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Egypt, including those perpetrated against the supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite this, the current president “has not succeeded in completely silencing the media on some sensitive issues,” adds Qasem.

Sisi made no secret of his anger over media coverage of the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. In a televised speech in November 2016, he asked the media not to report on the issue. According to Qasem, when faced with an insufficiently docile Egyptian media, the regime’s apparent solution was to discreetly nationalise it. “The president wants the media to serve his vision, praise his accomplishments and ignore violations committed by his security apparatus,” Gamal Eid, president of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), tells Equal Times. “Look at the media today, they don’t write a single word about the daily arrests of dissidents, the forced disappearances and the failure of megaprojects touted by the regime as economic solutions,” he says. As early as September 2017, Reporters Without Borders published a report in which it expressed concern over media outlets being taken over by businessmen linked to the government and intelligence services.

“Sisi runs the media and the country like a barrack”

This takeover of the media has been accompanied by a wave of layoffs. According to Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafiz, member of the journalists’ union board of directors, in 2017, 300 journalists were fired by private media companies and institutions under state control. “Unfortunately, the union is powerless and hasn’t been able to defend journalists against the owners of private institutions or against state-owned companies, which have purchased media institutions,” he said during Egypt Media Forum, at an event put on by the DMC channel on 29 October.

Is this media takeover driven by greed? One source working at the Mukhabarat Harbeya’s DMC channel, who wished to remain anonymous, says no. “Sisi is a former field marshal and he runs the country like a barrack. For him, no critical voices can be tolerated,” the source tells Equal Times. But for journalists, losing their jobs is not their only concern. According to Reporters Without Borders, 32 journalists are currently in prison. There are many pretexts for imprisoning journalists, including for publishing "false information".

But according to a new law, publishing figures or unofficial information is considered to be publishing false information.

During the April 2018 presidential elections, al-Masry al-Youm, considered to be the largest independent newspaper in Egypt, provoked a strong backlash from the state and the pro-regime media. The newspaper published a front-page article detailing the threats of fines made by the national electoral commission against voters boycotting the presidential election, as well as promises made by officials to provide voters with gifts and tickets. The government blocked access to al-Masry al-Youm’s website, and in a compromise to unblock it, the newspaper was forced to dismiss its chief editor and accept a successor with close ties to the government. The new chief editor, Hamdi Rezeq, imposed severe restrictions on topics that journalists were allowed to cover. Despite being responsible for this new self-imposed censorship, Rezeq made a mistake in the eyes of the regime. On 5 September 2018, he wrote an editorial in which he criticised police inaction in the face of sectarian violence against Christians in Upper Egypt. He too was forced to resign.

“Behind the scenes, the security services hire and fire the editors of both private and state newspapers,” says a former editor-in-chief of the independent news site al-Badil (The Alternative), now unemployed, who wished to remain anonymous. The site he ran played an important role in the revolution of 2011 and during the years that followed. In April 2018, his team decided to close the site permanently after the state had blocked it for ten months.

“The state tells journalists what to cover and what not to cover,” adds the former editor.

According to him, every day a security official has to read over the drafts of the newspapers before they are printed. Several newspapers have been banned from publication for writing articles or reports that did not please a supervisor.

This pressure is not only placed on the heads of media outlets, but also on the journalists themselves. A journalist with the state-owned daily al-Ahram tells Equal Times that “mediocre” chief editors are promoted for their loyalty to the regime, despite a lack of qualifications. Out of intimidation and fear, professional journalists refrain from publishing information critical of the regime. As a result, “journalists have become nothing more than the editors of government press releases,” says the journalist, who wished to remain anonymous.

Authorities for regulating or monitoring the media?

As if taking control of the media wasn’t enough, in 2016, the regime created three new state bodies officially charged with supervising the media, but who in fact “monitor newspapers and punish journalists who dare to criticise the regime,” says Achraf Qasem of the daily al-Masry al-Youm. These bodies are overseen by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation.

Named by Sisi to head the Council, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a former journalist known for his ties to the security services, acts as the police of the Egyptian press. “He is increasing the number of warnings, threats and sanctions against the media. It’s an unprecedented level of intervention,” says another journalist from the magazine al-Helal, also owned by the state.

Last March, Ahmed led a media offensive against the BBC and threatened to close its offices in Cairo following a report denouncing torture.

The other body, the National Press Authority, holds monthly meetings with the editors of public newspapers “to give them guidelines on the topics to be addressed and the positions to be adopted,” says the journalist from al-Helal. The National Media Authority is responsible for monitoring the content of television series and talk shows.

But if control and repression of the media don’t prove to be sufficient, the state has another weapon up its sleeve: blocking websites that it finds too critical. On 21 October 2018, the independent news site Mada Masr published a report on the Mukhabarat’s involvement in the purchase of gas from Israel. According to the journalist who wrote the report, Mada Masr created four separate URLs in one week to escape the ban imposed by the government since May 2017. Like the site itself, these four URLs were blocked one by one. According to a report published by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Mada Masr is one of 496 websites of news outlets, human rights organisations and VPNs in Egypt that have been blocked.

In the name of security, criticism is prohibited

In addition, the Egyptian government has adopted a series of laws to repress any journalist, blogger or simple user of social media who criticises the government. Adopted in August 2015, the anti-terrorism law requires journalists, in the name of national security, to respect the government’s official version of events when covering attacks. The journalists’ union has openly criticised this law, which “does not respect the constitution and is a deadly blow to freedom of the press.”

And since last summer, two laws on media regulation have made it possible to prosecute anyone who “harms family values, national security or the economy.” The definition is broad enough to allow for anyone to be arrested. Bloggers and journalists in particular are targeted. The first is the anti-cybercrime law, which gives authorities the right to block access to websites and blogs in the name of protecting national security.

Under this law, any social media account with more than 5,000 followers is considered to be a news site. Authorities are thus able to block access and arrest users if content is deemed to be a “threat to state security.”

The law also allows authorities to imprison and fine up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly €15,000) anyone attempting to access, intentionally or otherwise, sites blocked by the state. Reporters Without Borders accuses Egypt of legalising censorship under the pretext of fighting cybercrime.

The second law on media regulation has also dealt a fatal blow to what remains of freedom of expression. It prohibits “live” broadcasts on Facebook and any live news on the internet or television. If new demonstrations break out, no channel will be allowed to broadcast live images from Tahrir Square or anywhere else. So it should come as no surprise that, during Islamic State’s latest attack on Christians on 2 November 2018 in Upper Egypt, Egyptian newspapers did not publish any photos or information – only official statements.

This story has been translated from French.