The World Press Freedom Day, marked on 3 May, coincides this year with the peak of the third wave of Covid-19 in Egypt and the start of a nationwide vaccination campaign. Despite the enormous challenges the pandemic has posed around the world, the press and media outlets in Egypt have been deprived of exercising their work freely, due to the tight blockade imposed by the various Egyptian official agencies on information related to the Covid-19 situation, as well as the health and executive authorities’ policies towards the pandemic.
The press and media outlets were unable to access, publish or circulate information related to the health risks facing the society. They were also unable to observe policies to confront the pandemic and to hold those responsible for the implementation of these policies accountable. The Egyptian authorities generally considered the press and the media as a key party in causing the crisis, not as one of the tools to deal with it. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) documented 60 violations against the right to freedom of the press during 2020. At least 20 of those violations were committed against journalists and media outlets over their coverage of the pandemic and the policies to confront it.
The way the Egyptian authorities are dealing with the press and the media in Egypt comes in line with the government policies that infringe freedom of the press and the media. It is also consistent with the government’s great hostility towards the circulation of information, as the government seeks to make its narrative prevail over any other narrative in the country. This comes as the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) has turned into a large observatory, receiving complaints about what it describes as media irregularities, and issuing punitive decisions regarding them under claims of protecting national security or Egyptian family values and others.
The SCMR, the National Press Authority (NPA), and the National Media Authority (NMA) lack independence from the executive authority. In its third annual report issued late last April, the SCMR said it had adopted a plan of action that stemmed from President Sisi’s Sustainable Development Strategy “Egypt 2030”. AFTE documented 19 violations committed by the three media regulatory bodies against journalists and media outlets in 2020.
Moreover, the SCMR is still failing to monitor the sources of financing deals to own newspapers and TV stations or companies that own them, thus violating the law that stipulates the Council’s role in protecting competition and pluralism and preventing monopoly. On 4 March, prominent journalist Mustafa Bakri announced the sale of Al-Mehwar satellite channel, owned by businessman Hassan Ratib, to three parties. Under the deal, businessman, Senator, and deputy head of the Mustaqbal Watan Party Mohamed Manzour bought 50% of the channel’s shares; an unspecified official media organization bought 38%; and the Media Production City and Nilesat bought the remaining 12%.
In the same context, journalist May Azzam said on Facebook that Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, owned by businessman Salah Diab, had been sold to a sovereign body. AFTE, however, could not verify that the deal was clinched. Thus, the United Media Services Company has continued clinching successive deals over the past five years to own media outlets, leading to a one-way media landscape that lacks diversity and pluralism.
At the level of digital journalism, some independent news websites have not received a response from the SCMR regarding the licensing requests they submitted. Nonetheless, the SCMR organized two events in late April to hand over licenses to most national news websites and a number of privately-owned websites. Yet, websites such as Mada Masr, Al-Manassa, Darb and Masr al-Arabia are still awaiting an official response to their requests, even though they fulfilled all the conditions required to obtain a license. These websites have been blocked as part of a massive campaign that an unidentified official body launched in 2017. The number of news websites that have been blocked by the unidentified official body or temporarily blocked by the SCMR has reached 124.
Although the mediation efforts exerted by the head of the Journalists Syndicate, Diaa Rashwan, have resulted in the release of at least nine journalists from prison in less than a year, security clampdown on journalists has not ceased. Around the same period, more than five journalists were arrested and detained in connection with various cases. This brings the number of journalists behind bars to 13, according to AFTE. The State Security Prosecution also continued issuing decisions to imprison journalists after their release, in what is known as “recycling”.
These violations led to a continued decline in Egypt’s ranking in terms of press freedom, as the country was ranked 166th in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Moreover, a joint statement issued by 31 member states of the UN Human Rights Council carried severe criticism of the state of press freedom in Egypt.
On the World Press Freedom Day, AFTE presents the following recommendations:
- The SCMR should conduct an extensive investigation into the transfers of ownership of media outlets that have been carried out since the Council was established in 2017. This investigation should aim to identify the sources of financing deals to own media outlets and spot suspected monopolies.
- The SCMR should decide on requests for licenses submitted by independent news websites, in accordance with the requirements set forth in the law.
- The SCMR should stop its punitive measures against the media, which come under the pretext of violating press codes and standards.
- The Journalists Syndicate’s Council should ask the Public Prosecution to ensure the release of all detained journalists, and to stop recycling the released journalists into new cases.
- The House of Representatives should discuss and pass the law on the dissemination of information, in compliance with the constitution, in order to facilitate the work of journalists.
- The Egyptian authorities should immediately stop blocking news websites and lift the existing block on several websites.