Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression

Proactive Repression.. The second quarterly report on the state of freedom of expression in Egypt (April-June 2021)

 

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Prepared and edited by: The Monitoring and Documentation Unit of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)

 

Content

Methodology

Introduction

First section: Repression from the source

  • Preventing citizens from demonstration and peaceful assembly: The Shooting Club case – Citizens’ protests against the Israeli aggression on Gaza
  • The law on dismissal of employees affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood: Continued targeting of citizens for expressing their views
  • The House of Representatives approves the amendment of the Penal Code regarding video and audio recordings of trial hearings

Second section: The Public Prosecution besieges the internet and imposes its guardianship on the citizens’ behaviors on social media

  • Controlling the online content under the pretext of preserving family values
  • Targeting online views that oppose or criticize the Egyptian government

Third section: Confused media scene and repeated violations

  • The resignation of Osama Heikal… Who runs the media scene?!
  • Selectivity and politicization… the criteria governing the process of regularizing the status of news websites
  • Regular and repeated violations against journalists and freedom of the press

Fourth section: The continued targeting of Egyptian master’s students and researchers abroad upon their return to their country is the most serious violation of academic freedom

Recommendations

Methodology

This report presents and analyses the general policies of the Egyptian authorities and their various agencies towards the right to freedom of thought and expression in its various forms, specifically freedom of the press and media, freedom of creativity and artistic expression, freedom of digital expression, academic freedom and student rights, the right to access information, and the right to peaceful protest and assembly. AFTE monitors and documents violations in these domains. It also provides legal support to the victims of these violations through its lawyers in the legal unit.

Monitoring and analyzing the Egyptian government’s policies towards the right to freedom of expression and circulation of information help determine the state institutions’ attitude towards supporting or violating these rights. The report also relied on the presentation and analysis of violations that were monitored and documented according to AFTE’s methodology. The violations were documented between 1 April 2021 and 30 June 2021.

Introduction

The second quarter of 2021 has not differed much from the first one. On the one hand, the rate of violation of freedom of expression continued to decline, as the total violations documented during the second quarter amounted to 29, compared to 36 violations documented during the first quarter of the same year. On the other hand, both quarters have witnessed an accelerating pace of developments in each file of freedom of expression.

But this does not reflect the whole truth. The violations documented in the second quarter – despite their decrease – differed qualitatively from those of the first quarter, in terms of their gravity and their threat to freedom of expression in general. The second quarter witnessed the issuance of 11 court rulings in five cases against a number of male and female citizens for exercising their right to expression using different ways. Some of these rulings were final and thus could not be appealed. Most of the cases were related to digital freedom of expression, specifically via social media. The most prominent of these was the four-year prison sentence issued by the Supreme State Security Court against master’s researcher at the Central European University in Austria Ahmed Samir Santawy, and the prison sentences issued against eight Likee and TikTok users and employees.

The prison sentences issued by the Economic Court and the Cairo Criminal Court against five female content creators and three Likee employees reflect the guardianship approach adopted by the Public Prosecution towards the behavior of citizens, especially women, on various social media platforms. The Public Prosecution adopts this approach to protect what it calls “Egypt’s cyber borders”, in a way that ensures “the preservation of family values ​​and principles”.

Meanwhile, the prison sentence issued against Santawy reflected the grave violation caused by the recent amendments introduced to the Emergency Law, which made the rulings issued by the Supreme State Security Court final and irrevocable, and it is not permissible to appeal or overturn them. Only there is a chance for a convicted person to submit a petition to the President of the Republic, with the aim of obtaining a pardon for the remainder of the jail term or not ratifying the ruling. These amendments violate fair trial guarantees, especially in political cases. They show how the Egyptian authorities are determined to target Egyptian researchers abroad and use exceptional courts to abuse them.

Away from judicial rulings, the second quarter of 2021 witnessed the Egyptian parliament’s initial approval of the amendment of some provisions of Law No. 10 of 1973 regarding the non-disciplinary dismissal of public servants. The proposed amendment gives the President of the Republic or his delegate the power to dismiss government employees without being bound by the disciplinary means. The wording related to the specific cases in which an employee could be dismissed is very broad and undefined. It, for example, cited national security reasons and breach of job duties without clarification. Moreover, the parliament agreed to amend the Penal Code with regard to video and audio recordings of trial hearings, in clear violation of the principle of publicity of hearings.

The second quarter of 2021 also witnessed the resignation of Minister of State for Information Osama Heikal, after only 16 months of assuming the post, which was introduced as part of the cabinet reshuffle in late 2019, six years after the abolition of the Ministry of Information in implementation of the 2014 constitution. Heikal’s resignation came as a proactive act before the parliament resorted to procedures of withdrawing confidence from him, especially after the parliament’s Media, Antiquities and Culture Committee, headed by Dr. Doria Sharaf El-Din, rejected the minister’s statement before the parliament. The committee also levelled several accusations at Heikal, mainly including corruption, on the grounds that he held two executive positions at the same time, in addition to financial and administrative irregularities.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) continued to ignore requests by a large number of privately-owned news websites to obtain licenses, despite the fact that most of these websites submitted requests to regularize their status more than three years ago. Although the SCMR organized two ceremonies at the end of last April to hand licenses to many state-owned news websites and a limited number of privately-owned websites, the process of regularizing the status of news websites, especially the privately-owned ones, was obviously characterized by politicization and selectivity. The move aimed to deprive certain websites, which provide content not conforming to the prevailing and security-oriented editorial line, of legal protection. This makes these websites and their staff vulnerable to security and judicial prosecution all the time.

During the second quarter of 2021, security services violated the right of the public to protest and assemble peacefully to condemn the recent Israeli attacks on Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Although the Egyptian authorities adopted a position consistent to some extent with the public demands, this has not changed the highly repressive security policy towards any attempt to organize protests, whatever the demands were.

This report attempts to read all these rapid developments, all of which are related to the right to freedom of thought and expression, and to analyze the impact of these policies on the reality of freedom of expression. In this regard, the report addresses political and legislative developments, reviews and analyses patterns of violations of freedom of expression, and monitors the development or regression of these violations.

 

First section: Repression from the source

 

  • Preventing citizens from demonstration and peaceful assembly: The Shooting Club case – Citizens’ protests against the Israeli aggression on Gaza

The Egyptian authorities continue to impose restrictions on the citizens’ right to peaceful protest and assembly regarding various issues, even if the public demands conformed to the government’s position. Although a number of observers praised the official Egyptian position towards the Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza, the Egyptian authorities banned any demonstrations that might support the same policy pursued by the government. This reflects a clear hostility to the right of the public to demonstrate and assemble peacefully.

Although the protest law defines assembly as any gathering of more than five people, the security services have consistently prevented the presence of even one person on any street in solidarity with the Palestinians. AFTE documented five incidents in which security forces arrested or illegally detained citizens for demonstrating in support of the Palestinian cause. The following are three of those incidents:

Ahmed Manna Ali was arrested after he burnt the Israeli flag after the Eid prayer on Al-Libini Street, off Al-Haram Street in Giza. Five others were arrested on the same day in connection with the same incident. Three of those were released, while the other three, namely Ahmed Manna, Mohamed Abdel-Al, and Bahaa El-Din Zaki, were remanded in custody for four days in connection with Case No. 26705 of 2021. Their detention was extended for another 15 days, and then they were released on bail of 500 pounds each.[1]

On 18 May 2021, the Qasr al-Nil Prosecution decided to release Omar Ahmed Morsi on 1,000 pounds bail, pending investigation into Case No. 3496 of 2021. Morsi faced charges of incitement to organize demonstrations that would disturb public order, as he stood in Tahrir Square in Cairo on 14 May carrying the Palestinian shawl while chanting slogans in support of the Palestinian cause. Morsi was brought before the Qasr al-Nil Prosecution three days after his arrest on the 17th of the same month.[2]

In the same context, security forces in Tahrir Square detained three activists in two different incidents. Mustafa Ahmed was assaulted and illegally detained after chanting alone in support of the Palestinian cause, before being released several hours later. Security forces also detained activist Nour Al-Huda Zaki and her friend Hayat after they stood in Tahrir Square raising slogans supporting the Palestinian cause and condemning the recent Israeli attacks on the Palestinian territories. Both Zaki and Hayat were released several hours later.

In the context of violation of the right of the public to peaceful assembly, security forces broke up a demonstration in the Shooting Club area in Alexandria on 4 June. Residents of the area were protesting against government plans to displace them to demolish their houses without prior warning. The government allocated 90 million pounds to develop the area in 2019, and indeed the development plan began, but it stopped suddenly last January.

The security forces arrested approximately 30 people from the area after the demonstration was dispersed. Some were released later, but 13 were remanded in custody pending investigation into Case No. 4675 of 2021. They faced charges of inciting protests, throwing stones at security forces, and injuring a number of them. They were all released on 17 June.[3]

  • The law on dismissal of employees affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood: Continued targeting of citizens for expressing their views

On 28 June, the House of Representatives approved a draft law submitted by MP Ali Badr and ten other MPs to amend some provisions of Law No. 10 of 1973 regarding the non-disciplinary dismissal of public servants. The new amendments allow the President of the Republic or whoever he delegates, based on the argument of the competent minister and after hearing the employee’s statements, to dismiss public servants by non-disciplinary means if they breach their job duties in a way that seriously harms a public facility or its economic interests, or if there was solid evidence that they have committed anything that affects national security and safety. The amendments consider the inclusion of an employee in terrorist lists as solid evidence.

The amendments allow for the targeting of individuals for expressing their views or criticizing the government policies or any official. The amendments carried the same broad terms that give the enforcement body great powers to interpret them. These terms include “harming Egypt’s economic interests” and “committing what affects national security”, which the amendments failed to specify. These amendments can be also used by managers to abuse their subordinates.

These amendments clearly reflect the intentions of the Egyptian authorities. They just came after the train accident in Toukh, in Qalyubia, which left 11 civilians dead. Minister of Transport Kamel al-Wazir blamed what he described as “terrorist elements” working in the state administrative apparatus, saying they aimed to cause crises to incite the public against the government[4]. The minister called on the parliament in May to enact a law to hold accountable public servants who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood group. He noted that 162 employees belonging to the Islamist group were working in the railway sector.

In the same context, member of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alaa Essam[5] said these amendments came within the framework of the government’s keenness to strengthen mechanisms to confront terrorism and extremism and track people affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood inside the country. Essam added that some government employees affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood were involved in sabotage operations that occurred over the past months. He noted that most of these operations had to do with train accidents. He said the Brotherhood group seeks eagerly to sabotage the railway system. However, the Public Prosecution did not announce the involvement of Muslim Brotherhood members in the recent train accidents.

It seems that the Egyptian authorities are not only determined to continue blaming terrorist elements for all the mistakes that occur in Egypt. They have also opened the way, through these amendments, to use non-disciplinary dismissal to abuse individuals and not only members of the Brotherhood on the grounds of opposition to the Egyptian authorities or any of its policies, especially on social media, which have become the last available outlet for Egyptians to express their views. AFTE rejects this practice, sees it as a sort of proactive repression, and calls on the parliament to repeal these amendments.

  • The House of Representatives approves the amendment of the Penal Code regarding video and audio recordings of trial hearings

“Without prejudice to any other penalty, whoever photographs, records, broadcasts, publishes, or displays excerpts of a court session devoted to examining a criminal case while it is being held by any means, without the permission of the president of the court, and taking the opinion of the Public Prosecution, shall be punished by a fine of no less than one hundred thousand pounds and not more than three hundred thousand pounds.

Moreover, the devices or anything else used in committing the crime or what resulted from it shall be confiscated or destroyed, or their content shall be deleted, according to the case, and the fine shall be doubled in case of repetition.”

On 13 June 2021, the Official Gazette published Law No. 71 of 2021 amending some provisions of the Penal Code with the aim of criminalizing the reporting on criminal trials without obtaining prior permission from the court’s chief judge. This came after the parliament approved the law on 10 May 2021.

The amendment violates several basic rights protected by the force of the constitution. It also portends a great danger regarding the Egyptian authorities’ tendency to further violate the rights of the accused, particularly in political cases and cases of freedom of expression. It reflects the authorities’ desire to completely obscure everything that is happening inside courtrooms as well as the proceedings of trials. The amendment entails a number of other risks referred to in a joint statement signed by a number of local and international human rights organizations concerned with freedom of expression, including AFTE. The statement rejected the amendment, warned of its consequences, and called for its abolition.

The amendment aims to criminalize anyone who photographs, records words or clips, broadcasts, publishes, or displays by any means of publicizing the proceedings of a criminal trial without the prior authorization of the court’s president, following consultation with the Public Prosecution and the parties to the case in the event of their presence. It also sets a complementary penalty to confiscate or destroy the devices used in committing the crime or delete their content, in order to address all forms of electronic crimes, according to a report prepared by the parliament’s Legislative Committee.

“Court sessions are public, unless, for reasons of public order or morals, the court deems them confidential. In all cases, the verdict is given in an open session.”

The amendment violates Article 187 of the constitution regarding the publicity of all kinds of court sessions, including criminal, civil, and administrative sessions, unless the court decides their secrecy in consideration of public order or morals, and in all cases, the verdict shall be pronounced in a public session. The rulings of the higher courts in this regard have established that the norm for the sessions is to be public and that the pleadings are to be conducted in public. All laws of the judicial authority have included an explicit affirmation of this principle: the Judicial Authority Law (Article 18), the Civil and Commercial Procedures Law (Article 101), and the Code of Criminal Procedures (Article 268).

In their joint statement, the organizations emphasized that the issuance of this law restricts and violates the constitutional text regarding the public nature of court sessions, which the legislator has made available to all without the authorization of the head of the court or the Public Prosecution. Within this public framework and with technological advances, the sessions are broadcast live from inside the courts, so the principle of publicity has been extended to all, not only those present in the courtroom, and the live broadcast is carried out without registration or subsequent intervention. The organizations also denounced the issuance of that law at a time when hundreds of political cases are being considered, with unfair sentences against political opponents up to capital punishment in trials that lack the minimum international standards and guarantees of justice.

In addition to the blatant violation of the citizens’ right to knowledge and access to information, and the right of the accused to a fair and public trial, AFTE fears that these amendments will be exploited to shut windows in the face of any public or societal debate. This may authorize the security and judicial authorities to prosecute every person who expresses his opinion regarding any judicial case, whatever the means of expression, which foreshadows a new series of cases against those accused of freedom of expression.

 

Second section: The Public Prosecution besieges the internet and imposes its guardianship on the citizens’ behaviors on social media

During the second quarter of 2021, AFTE documented nine incidents that included 14 violations against citizens for expressing their opinions or publishing content online. The violations included six arrests and eight cases in which individuals were subjected to prison sentences in cases known in local media as “TikTok girls”. The Public Prosecution came on top of violators of citizens’ right to freedom of digital expression.

In recent months, the Public Prosecution has been tracking the behaviors of citizens on various social media platforms. It has also received complaints from citizens about content published on social media. It issues orders to arrest anyone violating what it calls the “family values” or publishing opinions critical of or opposing the government policies.

  • Controlling the online content under the pretext of preserving family values

AFTE documented three different cases where prison sentences were issued against eight individuals for publishing digital content on various social media platforms, including TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Likee. These cases were known in local media as the “TikTok girls”.

The beginning was on 8 June 2021 when the Cairo Economic Misdemeanour Court sentenced content creator Mennatallah Emad (aka Renad Emad) to 3 years in prison and fined her LE100,000 in the presence of her lawyer. She faced charges of violating family values ​​and principles and broadcasting indecent videos online, in Case No. 8762 of 2020. Emad is active on TikTok and Instagram, where she provides dancing (karaoke) videos and is followed by more than three million users.

In the same context, an appeals circuit at the Cairo Economic Court on 13 June 2021 sentenced TikTok content creators Sherifa Refaat (aka Sherry Hanem) and her daughter Nora Hesham (aka Zomoroda) to five years in prison and fined them LE100,000 each on charges of infringing on family values and promoting prostitution. On 14 March 2021, a court of first instance had sentenced Sherry and Zomoroda to six years in prison and ordered each to pay a fine of 100,000 pounds. Sherry and Zomoroda are active on TikTok and YouTube, where they post satirical videos. Their content on various platforms has been liked over 7 million times.

The third case was the most prominent, as it witnessed a qualitative shift in the philosophy of adapting cases against content creators on various social media platforms. The defendants were initially referred to the Economic Court on charges of infringing on the family values ​​and principles and outraging public modesty, as well as charges of immorality and debauchery. However, before the Cairo Economic Court issued its ruling, the Public Prosecution decided to refer the defendants to the Criminal Court in a new case, this time on charges of human trafficking, by trapping underage girls and exploiting their financial need.

In June 2021, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced content creator Haneen Hossam to 10 years in prison in absentia. Meanwhile, it sentenced content creator Mawaddah al-Adham and three Likee employees, namely Mohamed Zaki, Mohamed Alaa El-Din and Ahmed Salah Desouky, to six years in prison and ordered each to pay a fine of 200,000 pounds, in Case No. 4917 of 2020, registered in the North Cairo Court under No. 1106 of 2020.

The five convicts were charged with human trafficking and dealing with natural persons, who are girls used in works that violate the principles and values ​​of society in order to obtain material benefits from them, exploiting their poor economic conditions and their need for money, and promising to give them money. This crime was committed by an organized criminal group for the purposes of human trafficking.

This came as part of a security campaign launched by the Public Prosecution against TikTok and Likee influencers. During that campaign, Haneen Hossam, Mawaddah al-Adham and three others were arrested in Case No. 479 of 2020, on charges of infringing on family values (according to Law No. 175 of 2018 on Combating Information Technology Crimes).

Last January, the Economic Court acquitted Haneen Hossam and Mawaddah al-Adham of charges of infringing on family values, and creating and managing private social media accounts. However, the Public Prosecution referred them to the Criminal Court in connection with a new case, over a video clip which the Public Prosecution deemed as infringing on family values. The prosecution accused the girls of human trafficking, claiming that they exploited two girls via Likee and promised them with job opportunities. The Public Prosecution argued that their chats over Likee contained calls for debauchery and prostitution.

This ruling is a direct result of the systematic security and media campaigns aimed at imposing moral and societal guardianship on online users in Egypt. AFTE documented defamation campaigns that damaged the reputation of girls on news websites and television channels. However, the Public Prosecution did not investigate these campaigns of defamation and social stigma.

On its website[6], AFTE provides background information and analyses about the TikTok trials. It also provides profiles of those accused in these cases, the legislative context of the cases, analysis of the Public Prosecution’s discourse, the role of the companies that own the social media applications used by the defendants, and a reading of the TikTok case papers.

  • Targeting online views that oppose or criticize the Egyptian government

During the second quarter of 2021, AFTE documented six arrests of Egyptian citizens for publishing news or views critical of the government policies. Most of those were arrested for expressing their opinions online, and for criticizing the government’s policies towards various issues, most notably the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For example, a National Security police force arrested Hoda Abdel-Hamid Mohamed Ahmed, a 55-year-old housewife, on 27 April 2021 from her home in the 15th of May district in Cairo, along with her husband and daughter.[7]

The police took all family members to the National Security headquarters in the Al-Maasara neighbourhood in Helwan. Ahmed was brought alone before the Supreme State Security Prosecution in the Fifth Settlement in Cairo in the evening of 27 April 2021. Interrogation with her continued the next day. The Public Prosecution checked the findings that included “photos and videos” posted on her personal Facebook account regarding the violations that her son Abdul-Rahman al-Shuwaikh was subjected to. Ahmed was remanded in custody for 15 days in connection with Case No. 900 of 2021, facing charges of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news.

Ahmed was arrested for posting videos in which she talked about violations committed against her son, Abdul-Rahman, who is being held in pretrial detention in the maximum security Minya Prison. She said her son was subjected to torture and sexual assault. Ahmed filed a complaint with the Minya District Prosecution, accusing the prison administration of torturing her son. She was illegally held inside the National Security Agency headquarters where she was questioned about the online campaign she launched to demand an end to the violations against her son inside prison.

The former diplomat at the Egyptian embassy in Venezuela, Yehia Zakariya Othman Negm, 52, was arrested from his home in the Zaytoun district on 29 May. He was arrested by two people, one wearing civilian clothes and the other wearing police outfit. They seized his laptop, mobile phone, 200 US dollars and 700 Egyptian pounds. Negm was then taken to a National Security building in Al-Salam district, where he was illegally interrogated about his Facebook posts. He remained there for four days before he was brought to the Supreme State Security Prosecution in connection with Case No. 913 of 2021. The prosecution charged him with joining a terrorist group, spreading false news and misusing social media. At the end of the interrogation session, the Public Prosecution decided to remand him in custody for 15 days pending investigation.[8]

Also during the second quarter of 2021, the Ministry of Interior violated the citizens’ right to move freely, as well as their right to enjoy the public sphere without arbitrary restrictions. It exploited the exceptional powers granted to it by the state of emergency that has been imposed for more than five years. The ministry, in accordance with its long-standing security policies, sets up security checkpoints in various parts of the capital and some vital governorates, and deals with the public as “suspects”. In recent years, it used to randomly search citizens’ phones, specifically in major squares, in search of social media posts that oppose the government policies, with the aim of abusing those who make these posts.

For example, a plainclothes police force arrested Ahmed al-Araby Abdel-Gawad al-Sayed al-Araby, a 42-year-old labourer, from a street in the city of Banha on 12 May, after he was stopped and forced to get in a microbus. Araby was taken to the National Security Agency headquarters in Banha, where he was subjected to beating and other types of torture, including electrocution. He was asked about his link to the Muslim Brotherhood group and the so-called “Joker” demonstrations. Araby said that he was forced during the interrogation to admit that he headed a group to organize demonstrations, but he denied the allegation. The interrogation with him lasted for approximately 19 days. He was then brought to the Public Prosecution in connection with Case No. 910 of 2021, where he faced charges of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news and misusing social media, against the background of his Facebook posts that tackled political issues. He was remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigation.

In a similar context, Abdul-Rahman Mustafa Hassan Abdul-Fattah, a 26-year-old student at the Taiba Institute for Administrative Sciences, was arrested in front of his house in Abul-Gheit village in Al-Qanater al-Khairiya district on 7 May. He was taken to a police station in his neighbourhood, then to the National Security Agency’s office in Qalyoub. He was illegally interrogated about his responsibility for a Facebook group called “People’s Peaceful Revolution”. The prosecutors faced him with some posts on the group, accusing him of being one of the group’s admins. He completely denied the allegation and confirmed that he did not know how his account was found in that group, saying he did not know the nature of the posts because he was not active on Facebook.

Abdul-Fattah was detained at the National Security Agency’s office in Qalyoub for approximately 18 days, until he was brought before the Supreme State Security Prosecution in connection with Case No. 913 of 2021. The prosecution charged him with joining a terrorist group and spreading false news, claiming that he was a member of the aforementioned Facebook group, through which he published false news in response to calls by the self-exiled businessman Mohamed Ali to demonstrate in Ataba and Mosky squares. Abdul-Fattah denied the allegations, but the Public Prosecution remanded him in custody for 15 days pending investigation.

 

Third section: Confused media scene and repeated violations

 

AFTE observed a continued decline in the rate of violations against the press and media community during the second quarter of 2021. It documented five incidents that contained ten violations. However, this does not reflect the whole truth. For example, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation ignored requests by a number of independent news websites to obtain licenses. Moreover, the process of regularizing the status of news websites was characterized by politicization and selectivity.

Minister of State for Information Osama Heikal resigned in the second quarter of 2021, only 16 months after assuming his post in late 2019. His resignation came after a long struggle with various parties of the press and media community.

Monopoly in the private visual media market continued, in the absence of any oversight, accountability, or questioning by the SCMR, which is responsible – according to law – for the protection of competitiveness, diversity and pluralism and the prevention of monopolistic practices. On 4 March, journalist Mustafa Bakry announced that Al-Mehwar satellite channel, owned by businessman Hassan Ratib, would be sold to three parties, divided as follows: 50% of the shares to businessman, senator and deputy head of the Mustaqbal Watan Party Mohamed Manzoor, 38% to an official media organization (unspecified), and the remaining 12% to the Media Production City and Nilesat. The editor-in-chief of the state-owned newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm was appointed head of the TV station.

This deal indicates that companies affiliated with the security services tend to buy loyal channels, which means almost full control of the visual media market. The successive acquisition deals clinched by the United Media Services Company over the past five years resulted in a one-sided media landscape that lacks diversity, pluralism, influence, and spread. The company had previously taken over the Al-Hayat channel network owned by a businessman and former head of the Wafd Party Al-Sayed al-Badawy, although the network’s media policy was in line with the government policies. The company also bought – through the Egyptian Media Group – the ONTV network, owned by businessman and former head of the Free Egyptians Party Naguib Sawiris, despite the network’s acquiescence to the prevailing media policy as well. The fact that ownership of all TV stations was a goal in itself has become apparent over time. The move aimed to contain the influence of these channels that has been increasing since 2010, reaching the point of the greatest contribution to overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012/2013, and redirecting these channels to serve the interests of the ruling regime.

In the same context, journalist Mai Azzam said on Facebook[9] that Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, owned by businessman Salah Diab, was sold to a sovereign body. However, AFTE could not verify whether the deal was clinched, without any oversight or intervention by the SCMR.

  • The resignation of Osama Heikal… Who runs the media scene?!

Cabinet spokesman Nader Saad said Heikal submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly, citing “personal reasons”[10]. This came after the parliament’s Culture and Media Committee rejected Heikal’s statement on the implementation of the government’s program. The committee said the minister and his assistant apparatus did not achieve the desired goals, and that there were financial and administrative violations, including the fact that Heikal had combined the positions of the Minister of State for Information and the board chairman of the Media Production City, which violates the constitution.

The undersecretary of the Culture and Media Committee said the committee would demand “political” accountability, while the administrative and financial violations would be investigated by supervisory bodies.

Heikal’s resignation came as a pre-emptive act before the parliament began the process of withdrawing confidence from the minister. The House of Representatives’ regulation set the rules of withdrawing confidence from the government or from one of its ministers. Article 226 of the regulation stipulates that a request to withdraw confidence from the Prime Minister or one of his deputies or one of the ministers or their deputies shall be submitted in writing to the Speaker of the House signed by at least one-tenth of the number of the House members.

The parliamentary committee condemned the Media Production City’s meagre profits compared to its capital of two billion pounds, as well as the decline in its book shares. It noted that Heikal had raised the allowance for attending the board meetings to 6,000 pounds, the board chairman’s bonus to 20,000 pounds, and the board chairman’s salary to 600,000 pounds.

Heikal’s resignation came after a long conflict with various parties in the media community[11]. The most prominent features of that conflict were the criticisms he launched against the local press and media outlets. He said they lacked spread and influence, especially among the youth, at a time when the audience had increasingly shifted towards foreign media to follow news. The minister also criticized the “closed policies” of the media market in Egypt, calling for the market to open up in a way that protects competition and pluralism.

  • Selectivity and politicization… the criteria governing the process of regularizing the status of news websites

The SCMR organized two ceremonies at the end of last April to hand licenses to many state-owned news websites and a number of privately-owned websites. This came as part of regularizing the status of news websites, in implementation of the Law Regulating the Press and Media and the SCMR No. 180 of 2018, its executive regulations, and the licensing regulations issued last year by the SCMR’s Resolution No. 26 of 2020.

The process of regularizing the status of news websites, whether under the current or previous board of the SCMR, was characterized by great haphazardness and confusion, as well as selectivity and politicization with regard to the SCMR’s response to the requests submitted by various websites to get licenses, although all these websites fulfilled all requirements. It can be said that the SCMR ignored the licensing requests submitted by all websites that provide content suspected of opposing or criticizing the government policies or trying to provide an alternative to the official narrative. The SCMR decided to leave the legal status of these websites pending, so that they remain threatened with security clampdown at all time, although they submitted their licensing requests more than two and a half years ago.

Distinguishing between news websites is mainly based on the nature of the content they provide, as well as the staff that run them. Although the SCMR issued licenses for 40 private news websites, including Cairo 24, it ignored the requests of 110 other websites, including Masr al-Arabiya, Mada Masr, Al-Manassa, Darb, and others.[12]

  • Regular and repeated violations against journalists and freedom of the press

Four violations, out of ten reported during the second quarter of 2021, were committed by health officials, not to mention the prison sentences issued against two journalists after the Abassya Chest Diseases Hospital administration filed a lawsuit against them.

The first of these violations took place was when health ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed banned journalists from covering the health minister’s visit to some isolation hospitals in Qena Governorate[13] on 11 April. This prompted journalists in the governorate to submit a report about the incident to the Journalists Syndicate, which – in turn – condemned the spokesman’s behaviour. The journalists called on the health minister to launch an investigation into the incident and to take the necessary measures to facilitate the work of journalists.

In the same context, the undersecretary of the health ministry in North Sinai and the director of Al-Arish Hospital prevented journalist Mohamed Arafat of the Veto newspaper and freelance reporter Ahmed Abu Draa from covering the arrival of eight ambulances from Gaza carrying Palestinians injured during the Israeli aggression on the Strip for treatment in Egyptian hospitals. The health officials said they acted upon instructions from Health Minister Hala Zayed.[14]

Meanwhile, a number of hospital security guards assaulted journalist Mohamed Farhat while the ambulances were entering the hospital before the police pushed the journalists away. The police said they were not a party to the prevention process, but they rather acted upon instructions from health officials, according to Ahmed Abu Draa.

In a separate context, journalist Roa Mamdouh of Al-Watan newspaper was detained[15] after she covered the incident of burning the body of an administrative employee at Helwan General Hospital. Mamdouh said: “In the morning of Tuesday, 6 April, I went to the ​​Ezbet el-Bagour cemetery in Helwan to cover the incident of burning the body of an administrative employee at Helwan General Hospital, who died with Covid-19. It was a task assigned to me by the head of accidents department, the managing editor, and the department supervisor. After I finished the coverage and was going to leave the cemetery, a police officer stopped me. A few minutes later, ten officers came and arrested me for filming without a permit. They confiscated my mobile phone and my wristwatch.”

Mamdouh continues: “They also arrested the cemetery guard who appeared with me in the live broadcast I made on the Al-Watan newspaper’s Facebook page, as a punishment for agreeing to talk to me. The guard was dragged and beaten in front of me before being taken to a room inside a nearby house. I was detained in the room next to him, which was dark. I could clearly hear the sounds of the guard’s beating, torture and distress, which caused me to have nervous breakdown. I asked to be transferred to an official detention facility, but my request was rejected. I was prevented from answering any phone calls, and when I repeated my request I was threatened with beating and filing a report against me on charges of assaulting the police while performing their duties. The commander of the security force threatened to sexually assault me ​​if the live broadcast published on the newspaper’s Facebook page was not deleted. This situation lasted for about three hours until the newspaper intervened and contacted the Cairo Security Directorate, and then I was released.”

In a more serious violation, the Emergency Supreme State Security Misdemeanor Court sentenced journalists Islam Said Ahmed and Moamen Mohamed Samir of the Cairo 24 website to one year in prison and ordered each to pay 5,000 in bail to suspend the execution of the ruling, according to the Cairo 24 website. They faced charges of spreading false news in Case No. 2 of 2021.[16]

This came after the two journalists went to the Abassya Chest Diseases Hospital to check on Ahmed’s mother. Ahmed was surprised by the deterioration of his mother’s condition as a result of medical negligence, which prompted him to film what they saw. Then, the hospital’s security guards detained them, seized their personal phones, and then took them to the police station and filed a report against them. The website said that lawyer Tareq al-Awady appealed the ruling issued against the two journalists.

In another context, the editorial department of Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper deleted an article written by researcher and former MP Amr el-Shobaki titled “News Channel”, in which he criticized media trends and the repetition of unsuccessful media experiences. This prompted a media official to contact the newspaper’s editorial department and tell them that it was not the right time to publish such articles and asked them to rather focus on positives.[17]

 

Fourth section: The continued targeting of Egyptian master’s students and researchers abroad upon their return to their country is the most serious violation of academic freedom

 

AFTE documented four violations against researchers and academics during the second quarter of this year. The most prominent violation was the harsh ruling issued by the Emergency Supreme State Security Court against researcher and master’s student at the Central European University in Austria Ahmed Samir Santawy. He was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 500,000 pounds in Case No. 774 of 2021, registered at the Supreme State Security Prosecution under No. 877 of 2021. Santawy was charged with spreading false news on Facebook about the domestic situation in the country.

According to the recent amendments to the Emergency Law, the rulings issued by the Supreme State Security Court are final and unappealable, on the grounds that it is one of the exceptional judicial institutions to which the accused are referred under the state of emergency. The President of the Republic has been extending the state of emergency periodically, in a clear circumvention of the constitution. The only thing left for the convict in this case is for the President of the Republic not to ratify the ruling.

The security services began targeting Santawy upon his return to Egypt from Vienna, where he was preparing a master’s thesis at the Central European University about women’s reproductive rights in Egypt.

On 23 January 2021, a force from the Cairo’s Fifth Settlement police station raided Santawy’s house, searched it, took copies of the ID cards of those in the house, and seized the recordings of the house’s surveillance cameras. Santawy was on a trip to Dahab in South Sinai at the time, so the police force asked his family to tell him to go to the police station upon his return home.

Indeed, he went to the police station on Saturday 30 January, and he was told to come again on Monday 1 February. He went again to the police station that Monday, but he was detained. There was no official information about him until he was brought before the Supreme State Security Prosecution in the Fifth Settlement on 6 February 2021.

He faced charges of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news that could harm security and public order, and misusing social media. He was remanded in custody in connection with Case No. 65 of 2021. On 23 February 2021, the Supreme State Security Prosecution summoned Santawy again to continue his interrogation, and added a new charge to him, namely financing a terrorist group.

On 22 May 2021, the Supreme State Security Prosecution summoned Santawy for interrogation in connection with a new case No. 877 of 2021, where he faced the same charges he had in the previous case. The prosecution decided to remand him in custody for 15 days, starting after the end of his detention in the first case.

On 29 May 2021, the Supreme State Security Prosecution referred Santawy to an urgent trial before the Emergency Supreme State Security Court, in Case 877 of 2021, on charges of spreading false news about the domestic situation in Egypt. The case was registered under No. 774 of 2021. The first trial session was held on 1 June 2021. On 22 June 2021, the court sentenced Santawy to four years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 500,000 pounds.

The swift and harsh verdict against Santawy, which was issued just one month after the start of the investigation into the case, indicates a deliberate intention to abuse the researcher. It also seems to be a message directed to all Egyptian researchers and students abroad so they remain silent and do not express anti-government opinions, especially on social media. It is also a message to them to stay away from studying topics that do not appeal to the Egyptian authorities.

In general, the ruling reflects the Egyptian authorities’ determination to continue closing in on the Egyptian academic community and targeting Egyptian researchers abroad.

In the same context, the security authorities at Cairo International Airport prevented doctoral researcher at the University of Washington Walid Salem from traveling for the second time, while he was on his way to France on 24 May. The airport authorities informed Salem that the reason for the ban was the inclusion of his name in the travel ban list as per a decision issued by the Public Prosecutor on 23 May, without giving clear legal reasons.

It was not the first time that Salem was banned from traveling. On 8 May 2020, he was banned from traveling to the United States. The Cairo Airport authorities searched his bags and withdrew his passport.

Salem was arrested on 23 May 2018 after meeting a university professor as part of his doctoral research about the history of the Egyptian judiciary. He appeared at the State Security Prosecution’s office as a defendant in Case No. 441 of 2018, where he was charged with spreading false news and joining a terrorist group. He was detained in Tora Prison for more than six months until he was released pending investigations on 3 December 2018 under precautionary measures. On 22 February 2020, the Supreme State Security Prosecution canceled the precautionary measures imposed on him and released him under the guarantee of his place of residence.

In a separate context, Dean of the Higher Institute of Technology in the 10th of Ramadan city Othman Mohamed Othman referred Assistant Professor at the institute’s branch in the 6th of October city Dr. Manar al-Tantawy to interrogation. Tantawy unofficially received two letters signed by the manager of the institute’s legal affairs department asking her to appear before the legal investigator at the institute on Tuesday 29 June. Tantawy did not go because the letters did not refer to the party that requested her to be referred to interrogation, nor did the letters mention any charges or incidents to be investigated.

Tantawy was targeted because of her request to obtain her legal right to be appointed as head of the Mechanical Engineering Department in the 6th of October city branch. She had earlier refrained from assuming the position temporarily for health reasons. However, her request was rejected by the dean of the institute, who argued that Tantawy’s husband was a prisoner of conscience.

Tantawy faces another form of injustice, as the Ministry of Higher Education has not yet approved her professorship although the permanent scientific committee examined her scientific production in December 2019. Also, the Supreme Council of Universities issued a decision in February 2020 granting her the academic degree. But the degree still needs to be approved by the higher education minister, who gave no reasons for not approving Tantawy’s degree so far. Thus, Tantawy cannot be appointed officially as a professor.

Recommendations

The Egyptian authorities continue to target the citizens’ right to know and express their views in different ways, by introducing laws that impose more restrictions on freedom of expression. The security and executive agencies also continue to pursue individuals for criticizing the government policies, especially via social media. The authorities are trying to impose more restrictions on social media platforms, on the grounds that they have become the last outlet available for Egyptians to express their opinions.

  • AFTE calls on the Egyptian parliament to stop approving the proposed amendments to the Penal Code regarding the non-disciplinary dismissal of public servants, as this represents a flagrant violation of the public servants’ right to freedom of expression.
  • AFTE calls on the Egyptian parliament to repeal Law No. 71 of 2021 amending some articles of the Penal Code regarding the criminalization of video and audio recordings of criminal trial hearings without prior permission from the court’s president. The law violates the principle of publicity of hearings, as well as the defendants’ right to a fair trial and the public’s right to know.
  • AFTE calls on the President of the Republic not to ratify the harsh ruling handed down to Ahmed Samir Santawy. It stresses the need to amend the Emergency Law to stop the implementation of the amendments that consider the rulings issued by the Supreme State Security Court as final and unappealable.
  • AFTE calls on the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to quickly decide on requests to regularize the status of privately-owned news websites, and to stop being intransigent with the websites that have completed the licensing requirements stipulated in the Law Regulating the Press and Media and its executive regulations.
  • AFTE calls for the abolition of the sentences issued against the “TikTok girls” and Likee employees. It also calls on the Public Prosecution to stop targeting women and censoring the internet under the pretext of protecting what it calls morals and family values.
[1] Testimony from the defendants’ lawyer

[2] AFTE’s Legal Aid Unit team

[3] AFTE’s Legal Aid Unit team

[4] Egypt.. The parliament approves law on dismissing “Brotherhood employees” in principle, Sky News Arabia, 28 June 2021, last visited on 11 July 2021, https://bit.ly/36EG9yZ

[5] Ibid

[6] TikTok Trials, AFTE, https://afteegypt.org/en/tiktok_en

[7] Testimony from one of the victim's children

[8] Testimony from his lawyer

[9] Post on her Facebook page, 11 March 2021, last visited on 11 July 2021, https://bit.ly/3kdX6IE

[10] Minister of State for Information Osama Heikal resigns, Al-Masry Al-Youm, 25 April 2021, last visited on 11 July 2021, https://bit.ly/2UMAELW

[11] Mostafa Shawky, The State Ministry of Information between disclosure of information and struggle for media control, AFTE, 3 January 2021, last visited on 11 July 2021, https://bit.ly/3xC61Yd

[12] AFTE’s Monitoring and Documentation Unit, Unlicensed: On the crisis of regularizing the status of news websites, AFTE, 10 June 2021, last visited on 11 July 2021, https://bit.ly/3B09BOb

[13] Mohamed Fathi, Journalists Syndicate condemns the banning by the health ministry spokesman of colleagues from exercising their rights, Al-Shorouk, 13 April 2021, last visited on 11 April 2021, https://bit.ly/3kkW5hU

[14] Testimony from journalist Ahmed Abu Draa

[15] Testimony from journalist Roaa Mamdouh

[16] Mostafa Dergham, “Cairo 24” complains about the detention of two colleagues in a publication case, Cairo 24, 12 June 2021, last visited on 11 July 2021, https://bit.ly/3xF0ikm

[17] Aida Salem, “Seven fruitful years”… Details of the extraordinary celebration of Sisi’s accession to power, Mada Masr, 30 June 2021, last visited on 11 July 2021, https://bit.ly/36xib91
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