The report was prepared by Mohamed Abdel Salam, Head of AFTE Research Unit
Section I: Dimensions of the Crackdown on foreign media:
- From security agencies to the State Information Service (SIS)
- Threatening journalists and disrupting the issuance of permits
Section II: Policy of State Information Service towards foreign media:
- Official statements..Continuous pressure on foreign media
- Defamation campaigns discussing the conspiracy of Western media on Egypt!
Section III: The SIS practices towards foreign media and Egyptian laws
Section IV: Effects of the crackdown on foreign media
Conclusion and recommendations
Appendix: Official statements issued by the State Information Service against foreign media
The report relies on official SIS statements concerning some reports published in foreign media. The researcher monitored these Statements from June 6, 2017 to June 5, 2019. The statements of SIS were monitored since the appointment of Diaa Rashwan as Chairman of the State Information Service (SIS) for a period of two years. The report also relies on the analysis of a number of media statements issued by the SIS Chairman on foreign media during the time period covered in the report.
The report is based on 7 interviews with journalists, including 6 direct interviews, while one interview was conducted by sending questions via email. The diversity of agencies in which these journalists work has been taken into consideration, including Egyptian journalists working in foreign media. The names and places of work of the journalists were kept confidential for their safety and in accordance with their request. The report presents the content of interviews using aliases for journalists. In addition, some information was withheld to avoid identification of the journalists who responded, in order to avoid being exposed to security risks. Interviews were conducted during the period from 9 January 2018 to 11 July 2018. The report also relies on the analysis of Egyptian laws related to the work of foreign media.
Egyptian authorities have recently clamped down on foreign media, as official Statements from the State Information Service have shown, and incidents in which foreign journalists have been deported or denied entry into the country. In addition, the Egyptian authorities have launched ongoing defamation campaigns in the local media, with the aim of portraying foreign media as part of a conspiracy against security and stability in Egypt. The Crackdown on foreign media cannot be seen in isolation from the Egyptian authorities’ policy, which aims to avoid international criticism of Egypt’s human rights record.
This policy is based on paralyzing the capacity of civil society organizations to work, and enacting a package of legislation restricting Media freedom and violating digital rights, so that the targeting of foreign media – the last window of access to information – is the main practice to prevent the access of information to international human rights bodies regarding the real situation in Egypt. On the other hand, the Arabic-speaking foreign media is a source of information that can benefit the Egyptian public. Egyptian authorities do not have the ability to control and direct political messages through it, in contrast to the local media.
The State Information Service was the main driver of these practices against foreign media. SIS is directly subordinate to the Egyptian Presidency and was established in the 1960s under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in order to be a public relations agency. Hisham Kassem, a media expert, described the SIS in a press interview as “a Soviet apparatus that ended its role with the end of the Cold War”.
It is noteworthy that there have been no fundamental changes in the powers of SIS since its establishment to the present time, and the Presidency has not issued instructions to SIS to exercise control over foreign media. In the time period covered by this report, the only changing variable for SIS was probably the appointment of Diaa Rashwan as SIS Chairman.
Rashwan has experience in research and journalism. In March 2019, he was elected as chairman of the syndicate of journalists after former chairman Abdel-Mohsen Salama abstained from running for a second term. Both journalists support the current authority and support president Sisi policies. The pushing of Diaa Rashwan in the last Syndicate elections, while he was still the Chairman of the State Information Service (SIS), is likely to be paying tribute to his efforts to clamp down on foreign media working in Egypt.
It is possible to say that Rashwan has formulated a new policy for SIS, to become a source of pressure and constraint on foreign media, and some of the interviewees said that the transformation was likely done in cooperation with sovereign bodies, wishing to have a formal non-security front of pressure on foreign media.
There are many incidents and developments that have been discussed in previous reports issued by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), as well as in press and media reports in foreign and local media, but this report aims to provide a broader reading of the dimensions and details of the Crackdown on foreign media. It is not enough here to point to the role of the SIS, which has the responsibility to issue work permits to foreign journalists, and has recently been following and criticizing their reports. The report deals with a series of interviews conducted by the researcher with foreign journalists and Egyptians working in foreign media investigating the aspect of direct and indirect threats received by journalists, and the extent to which the Crackdown by the Egyptian authorities affected their work. The report attempts to represent the voices of journalists, who are under constant pressure and violations by Egyptian authorities.
At another level, the report provides a legal reading of the scope of powers granted by the law to the SIS and the criteria governing its relationship with foreign journalists and foreign media in an attempt to answer multiple questions about the legality of SIS practices towards foreign media.
This report is issued two years after the appointment of Diaa Rashwan as the Chairman of the State Information Service. During this period, Egyptian authorities launched their campaign against the foreign media, the State Information Service being their main tool therefore or distorting the reputation of foreign media at the local level.
Section I: Dimensions of the Crackdown on foreign media:
The work of the press and media profession in Egypt is characterized by multiple risks between the trends imposed on the press and media institutions by the state institutions and security agencies, through the organizing frameworks for membership of the Journalists Syndicate, and ending with threats and security and judicial pursuits. Security agencies intervention in the work of journalists and media professionals is possibly the most serious threat. Over the past six years, a large number of journalists have been arrested, detained and imprisoned for their work. There are numerous examples of security threats, including Al-Jazeera journalists’ case and the photographer Shawkan case, as well as dozens of cases in which journalists and photographers have been attacked during their work, especially with regard to coverage of political events and protests. Foreign journalists also face constant security threats, sometimes involving deportation to their country or denial of entry to Egypt.
In this context, the State Information Service (SIS) role has been to harass foreign media and foreign journalists. This campaign has an explicit aspect through the public statements issued by SIS and the defamation campaigns led by Diaa Rashwan, SIS chairman, against foreign media, which are discussed in the report later. Another undeclared aspect is threats to foreign journalists and Egyptians working in foreign media.
AFTE began to monitor the attack led by the State Information Service on foreign media since the issuance of the SIS statement about the terrorist oasis attack in October 2017. Since the statements issued by SIS were numerous, we had to reach foreign journalists and Egyptian journalists working for foreign media, to highlight the details of the Crackdown. It is remarkable that the interviews conducted by the researcher with journalists carried many silent aspects, making them a priority in dealing with the Crackdown on foreign media.
- From security agencies to the State Information Service (SIS):
It can be said that the current attack on foreign media is not accompanied by the declared role of security, except for the arrest of journalists and their deportation from Egypt. This represents a development that needs to be understood, particularly since security services have traditionally dealt with the foreign media file. And before presenting the interviews conducted by the researcher, it should be noted that the report used aliases for journalists interviewed.
Adel said in an interview with the researcher: “Previously, sovereign bodies would contact offices of foreign media outlets as well as its journalists and question them regarding their sources in coverage of terrorist attacks and how we got certain information, for example a case that raised international questions concerning the performance of security bodies during the last two years.” “On one occasion, I was surprised by a contact of an official in a sovereign authority with some questions and threats, and then I made sure to end the call quickly,” Adel said
Caroline said in an interview with the researcher: “the situation was previously related to reports of concern to the security, such as National Security, and their intervention was through communication with the managers responsible for the foreign media, to the extent that I know” Adel and Caroline point to the period before Diaa Rashwan was appointed chairman of the State Information Service, specifically before June 2017.
The interviews also reveal the nature of the role played by the SIS before Diaa Rashwan assumed its chairmanship. Fawzi said: “Months would pass without journalists in foreign media receive any statements issued by the SIS. It would send us only data issued by some ministries.” “During my years in the foreign media, SIS issued permits to journalists working in foreign media, and thus had information about all these journalists, SIS also invited them to attend conferences or receive certain information. It also followed up the material published by the foreign media about Egypt and prepared reports on it to be sent to other parties in the country, according to what I know. ”
According to interviews conducted by the researcher, the State Information Service was not a source of concern for foreign journalists previously. “When I started working in Egypt more than two years ago, the relationship with the press center of the SIS was easy, I got the press card of foreign correspondents, and even when there was some delay, the press center would issue a temporary press card”, says Henry. Youssef said, “The SIS was a routine body, like any media office in the government ministries, and there was no interest in responding to what the foreign press was publishing”.
Without changes in the powers granted to the SIS, It is likely to be an alternative to security in terms of pressure on foreign media. “Since Diaa Rashwan assumed the chairmanship of the State Information Service in June 2017, there seemed to be a change in its role as if it were to be an executive body run by a civil official who was putting pressure on foreign media,” says Adel. “The SIS appears to be a front for security agencies that we do not know specifically,” Caroline said. “They focus on specific points in reports published by foreign media.”
She adds, “I think others have been angry at these points and they are putting pressure on us because of that. That is what I felt during my work.” In Youssef’s opinion, the SIS “has become a regulatory body that reports on the performance of foreign media, determines what is permitted and what is prohibited, there are campaigns against certain foreign media outlets, and SIS shapes the view of local media regarding our work through the reports they issue”.
In any event, security bodies have not completely disappeared from the scene. “This does not mean, of course, that the role of sovereign bodies is over, at least in terms of covering issues related to security. We receive responses from sovereign authorities that confirm the information we have obtained, but at the same time warn us that the publication of this information will be answered by their denial and will subject us to the rule of the law.” Adel explains through an incident that happened to him during his work when journalists were forced into not publishing information. He said: “There was an undeclared terrorist attack, and despite our knowledge of the information and a sovereign authority confirming it, we did not publish the news, because the official told us that the news would be denied. We were surprised that the Ministry of Interior, a day later, announced this attack in its statement, which was issued as a commentary to a second attack, and the first attack was mentioned as one of the operations carried out by the terrorist operation without mentioning any other details.”
Many interviewees believe that there is coordination between the State Information Service and security, while it is not known exactly how. “When I asked at the press center of SIS, the officials there told me that the delay of the press cards (permits) was due to a problem with security, and they did not tell me what the problem was,” Henry said. Thus, it appears that the SIS sends foreign journalists’ Data to security and waits for Approval to grant permission, which is granted by SIS to foreign journalists and renewed annually, and SIS also requests the Egyptian journalists working in foreign media to obtain the same permission.
“After 2013, the role of the SIS increased, I cannot remember when the pressure on the foreign media began,” says Rebecca in an interview with the researcher. “The permits required for our work are issued by the press center in Maspero, while SIS monitors the information we publish and comments on our work through the issuance of statements about reports they do not like. The SIS became more aggressive and noisy, which is what I will say in general about its performance. Before that, The SIS chairman would meet with foreign correspondents and give them some advice, but now there is an attack on foreign media and this is done in a direct manner through statements demanding foreign media to apologize and delete the content. ”
- Threatening journalists and disrupting the issuance of permits:
The current crackdown on foreign media is a constant threat to foreign journalists, as well as the suspension of issuing permits to practice journalism for foreign journalists through SIS. The interviews conducted by the researcher reveal that the attack on foreign media also includes the threat to journalists through officials of the State Information Service and its Chairman, Diaa Rashwan.
“I faced great pressure from the state Information Service, which I did not meet before Diaa Rashwan took over as chairman of the service. Security did not contact me about the reports that I published, as did the SIS. More than once I received calls from SIS officials where they asked me about the contents of reports I had published and suggested that I cover stories they considered important.”
Thus, Caroline recounted what had happened with her. Calling journalists appears to have become a common pattern for SIS officials. “There is another undeclared level where the chairman of SIS calls journalists and asks them about the content of their news and coverage, for example, in coverage related to the presidential election,” Adel said in an interview with the researcher, “he went so far as to read the whole of the report over the phone stopping at every word it contained.”
State Information Service officials also threaten journalists during their inquiries about permits related to their work, as Henry said in an interview with the researcher, he said:
“One time I was in the press center, and the director of the center spoke to me and pointed out that there were foreign journalists who “did not work professionally” as if he was a teacher directing his speech to a student. Of course I understood that he meant to intimidate and threaten me especially that he referred to BBC coverage, describing it as unprofessional.”
Youssef notes the delay in issuing permits or press cards. He says, “During 2018 there was a significant delay in the issuance of the press cards for journalists working in foreign media more than any previous year, so they issued us temporary cards,” he said. This is what Henry agrees with in the interview with the researcher in July 2018: “Since January 2018, I have been having difficulties getting my temporary card, and this was before the presidential election, so I did not have a permit to work. When I asked at the press center of the SIS, the officials there told me that the delay was due to a problem with security and did not explain what the problem was, after that I got a temporary card, and the annual card of 2018 was still not issued, although we were in July.”
Caroline believes that Egyptian journalists working in foreign media are more likely to face risks more than their foreign counterparts. “I think there is a targeting of Egyptian journalists working in foreign media institutions because they have family and a life in Egypt, and can be easily threatened with prison, as opposed to foreign journalists who face deportation as the maximum response from Egyptian authorities.” Not only that, but some officials of the SIS and other government agencies indirectly threaten Egyptian journalists working in foreign media.
“The message is to continue your work, but work to support Egypt and stand by it. Of course this means defending the policies of the current regime and overlook the transfer of the truth.
” said Caroline. The same was reiterated by Fawzi, “there is new tone that we keep hearing from officials and public figures we meet to prepare our reports, which boils down to the importance of supporting the country.” Fawzi adds, “They are addressing our work on security grounds, such as saying that foreign media should consider the interest of the country and that the current situation calls for a coverage to the liking of Egyptian authorities because this will help in the combat of terrorism.”
These threats and the obstruction of granting permits to foreign journalists constitute the undeclared aspect of the attack on foreign media, which is presented in the first section of the report. The second section moves on to the analysis of the SIS policy, which represents the declared aspect of the attack on foreign media.