Speech under siege from street to internet Annual Report on the State of Freedom of Expression in Egypt for 2019

Date : Sunday, 23 February, 2020

Section one: A reading into the violations of freedom of expression


Freedom of the media

Last year, the Egyptian government continued adopting policies and practices hostile to the freedom of press and media. At the legal level, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued on March 18, 2019, resolution no. (16) for the year 2019[1] concerning the issuance of a regulation of sanctions and measures that may be applied on the entities subject to the provisions of  law No. 180 of 2018on the Organisation of Press, Media and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation. The provisions of this regulation are to be enforced in the case of irregularities by private and state-owned press and media outlets, whether printed, visual or digital, according to the text of article 1 of the regulation.

Despite the delay -illegal or justified- in issuing the executive regulation of the law No. 180 of 2018 on the Organization of Press, Media and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation -the law stipulates that it must be issued within three months of the law’s implementation- the Supreme Council has decided to go surpass the executive regulation, and issued the sanctions regulation.

The penalties that could be imposed by the council on the press or media organizations included the imposition of a fine of LE 5 million in one case and ranges between LE 50 thousand and LE 250 thousand in most cases. The council also has the right to temporarily or permanently block press material or the outlet itself, in addition to the authority to permanently revoke the license of the press or media outlet.

In most of its articles, the “sanctions regulation” lacked the principle of proportionality between the irregularities committed and the penalties imposed on them. It imposed deterrent penalties for acts committed by the journalist or media professional during their daily work. The sanctions regulation also included vague and loose terms and texts. It gave the head of the council exceptional authority concerning imposing sanctions[2].

On the level of media ownership, 2019 also witnessed the continuation of the monopolistic policies in the press and media market. The United Media Services Company, which owns the Egyptian Media Group, and which is jointly owned by the General Intelligence Service, was able to complete several acquisition deals for media companies, production companies, and advertising agencies. In addition, a number of businessmen have become co-owners of the group, and they are Tamer Morsi, chairman of the group’s board of directors, in addition to Kamel Abu Ali and Muhammad Al-Amin. The Egyptian Media Group is considered the main tool that the security apparatus uses to tighten its control of media ownership, which has resulted in controlling ONTV, CBC, and Al-Hayat networks. In addition to direct control of ownership, the Egyptian Media Group runs the Nile Radio Network, which is owned by the National Media Authority, and has signed a protocol with the Authority, to put a plan to develop state-owned television[3].

On the level of direct violations against the press community, AFTE’s staff monitored at least 48 incidents in which 59 different violations occurred during the period from 11 December 2018 to 10 December 2019.

Cases of arrest and detention

On January 1, security forces arrested journalists Mohammed Mesbah Jibril and Abdul Rahman Awad Abdel Salam after conducting an interview with former MP and President of the Reform and Development party, Mohammed Anwar El Sadat. The journalists were imprisoned pending the case No. 1365 for the year 2018. The state security prosecution accused them of joining a terrorist group with the knowledge of its purpose, using an internet account for a terrorist purpose, and deliberately spreading false news for the purpose of terrorism.

On the 29th of the same month, the Cairo airport security authorities arrested journalist Ahmed Gamal Ziadeh on his return from the Tunisian capital with his wife, according to his lawyer[4]. Mokhtar Mounir, AFTE’s lawyer who handled Ziadeh’s case, said:

“Ziadeh was detained by the state security officer at the airport after being stopped at passport control. All communication was cut with his wife, while airport security authorities refused to disclose his whereabouts. Ziadeh remained at an undisclosed until the date he appeared before the Omraniya prosecution on February 13. The lawyers learned accidently that he is in Omraniya prosecution pending case No. 67 of 2019. The prosecution accused him of publishing and broadcasting false news via social media sites “facebook”[5].

Mounir explained that he learned during the investigations that the prosecution issued a warrant for seizure only two days before Ziadeh was brought to the prosecution on February 13, despite his arrest on January 29 at Cairo airport and his detention in an unknown destination. On March 2, the Omraniya Prosecution issued a decision to release the journalist on bail of 10,000 pounds.

On September 20th, security forces arrested journalist at Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, Ingy Abdul Whab, while she was covering demonstrations which occurred on that day. On September 26th, Abdul Whab appeared before the State Security Prosecution pending case No. 1338 of the year 2019 state security. She was accused of participating with a terrorist group while knowing its purposes and spreading false news. On October 10th, the state security prosecution ordered her release.

On September 21st, 2019, journalist and blogger Mohamed Ibrahim, known as Oxygen, was arrested while he was in El-Basatin police station as part of the precautionary measures in case No. 621 of the year 2018 National Security. A national security officer had accompanied him from the police station to one of the National Security headquarters, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information[6].Oxygen appeared;18 days after the security authorities denied his arrest, before the State Security Prosecution as a defendant in the case No. 1356 of the year 2018 State Security. The prosecution accused him of misuse of social media and spreading false news. The prosecutor ordered his imprisonment pending these accusations; the prosecution is renewing his detention until now.

On the 25th of the same month, the police forces arrested photojournalist, Islam Mosadak, from his home, and the authorities denied his presence. On October 1st, the Supreme State Security Prosecution ordered the detention of Mosadak, pending the case No. 488 of 2019 state security, without informing his family or the presence of his lawyer. The prosecution accused him of participating with a terrorist group knowing its purposes, publishing false news, and the use of a social media account to spread rumours. Mada Masr website quoted sources at CBC channel, which Mosadak was working for, saying that the channel’s management fired him after he was imprisoned by the State Security Prosecution[7].

On October 2nd, security forces released journalist at Masrawy website, Omar Hisham, without filing any police reports or directing any charges, after he was illegally detained from September 20th. Hisham was arrested from the vicinity of downtown while he was covering the celebrations by Al Ahli club’s fans after winning the Egyptian Super Cup, as mentioned by Masrawy website[8].

At the same time, security forces released Abdullah Ghoneim, journalist at Almnasa website, without filing any police reports or directing any charges after he was illegally detained from September 25th, till October 2nd. The security forces had arrested Ghoneim while returning from his hometown in Mahalla to Cairo. The Ministry of the Interior denied that Ghoneim had been arrested throughout that period.

Security forces arrested the Associated Press translator, Mostafa Al-Khatib, from his home on October 13th[9]. Al-Khatib appeared the next day before the State Security Prosecution, pending the case No. 488 of 2019, State Security. The prosecution accused him of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news. Mostafa’s arrest is likely to be related to a report published by the news agency about the arrest of English students who were present in Egypt for academic purposes.

Security forces also arrested journalist at Rose al Yusuf newspaper, Ahmed Shaker, from his home at the dawn of November 28th. Shaker was brought before the State Security Prosecution pending case No. 488 of 2019 state security; he was accused of participating with a terrorist group while knowing its purpose.

Security forces arrested Shadi Zalat, the editor at Mada Masr website, from his home at dawn on November 2. An armed security force took him to an unknown destination after searching his house and seizing two computers and two mobile phones belonging to him and his wife. The armed force did not reveal its identity or provide a warrant from the prosecution to search the house or arrest Zalat. The security men who accompanied Zalat told his wife that they were going to the Giza Security Directorate, but the Directorate denied his existence and he was kidnapped for nearly two days until he was released by leaving him on the ring road on the afternoon of Sunday, November 24th.

Security forces also arrested three other “Mada Masr” journalists: Editor-in-chief, Lina Atallah, and Editors Rana Mamdouh and Mohamed Hamama, after storming the website’s headquarters in Al Dokki area without revealing their identity or presenting any warrant allowing them to search the place. The security forces seized the mobile phones, collected the identities of all those present in the premise of the website, and locked them in one of the headquarters rooms. During a three-hour search of the website’s premise and the journalists’ computers, members of the security force interrogated the website’s editor-in-chief, and journalists Mohamed Hamama and Rana Mamdouh, as well as foreign journalists in the English version of the website, Ian Lowe and Emma Skolding. The security personnel also interrogated a France 24 journalist who was present at the headquarters for an interview about the arrest of Shadi Zalat, who was arrested one day before the storming incident.

The security force escorted the three journalists to Al Dokki police station and then to an unknown destination, but the vehicle they rode returned to the station, where they were released without filing any police records. In a subsequent incident, some security personnel went to the homes of journalists in the English version of the website Emma Skolding and Ian Lowe, on November 30, took their passports and asked them to go to the Passports, Emigration &Nationality Administration, where they were forced to sign a declaration to leave Egypt within seven days, according to Mahmoud Othman, AFTE’s lawyer, who accompanied them there[10].

This security campaign that targeted Mada Masr came after the website published a report entitled “A Long Work Mission … Mahmoud Al-Sisi side-lined to Russia”. The report was based on inner sources at the general intelligence service, government officials and senior politicians with close ties to the president’s inner circle, addressing the approval of president Sisi to remove his son from the GIS after what the report called a series of internal failures and crises that threatened “the stability of the regime”.

Rana Mamdouh had mentioned in an article published by Mada Masr that the Egyptian authorities in Cairo airport prevented her from travelling to attend a conference on “Investigative journalism in time of extremism”. Mamdouh said in her article:

“The national security officer at the airport told me I was registered on their watch list and that I would not be able to travel unless I consulted with the relevant officer in charge of my file at the Interior Ministry. I asked him if this meant there was an order banning me from travel. He answered calmly, “Not from the Public Prosecution, but from the responsible officer at the National Security Agency. I asked him about the reason. He responded that he didn’t have my file in front of him but added, “You’re a journalist. You must have done something.” He recommended I go to the National Security Agency headquarters to settle the matter with the officer responsible”.[11]

Physical assault cases

Journalists are still subjected to grave physical violations while performing their work, without the relevant authorities taking any step to protect them.

On April 23, 2019, following the match between Zamalek and Pyramids in the Egyptian league, a number of Zamalek players and administrators assaulted Al Masry Al Youm’s photojournalist   Abdel Rahman Gamal during his coverage of the match. In a testimony published by Al Masry Al Youm website, Abdel Rahman recites the details of the attack: “As soon as the match was over, I went to do my work photographing the manifestations of happiness of Pyramids players after winning and also photographing Zamalek players. I noticed the presence of a security cordon in the middle of the stadium and found that some Zamalek players are assaulting a police officer responsible for security, so I went to photograph the incident”. Abdel Rahman added: “I was surprised that Zamalek player, Mohammed Ibrahim, headed towards me and asked me quietly for my phone, which I am using in photographing. a member of the medical team, named Mohamed Eid, intervened trying to snatch my phone, but he failed and fell to the ground. After that, Mahmoud Ganesh came and beat me on the face, the dressing room worker and player Muhammad Abd Al Ghani also beat me with him. Mohamed Eid asked me to go to the dressing room to give me the phone, but I refused and went to Nasr City police station to file a report of the incident”[12].

On May 7, the cinema producer Ahmed Al Sobki and around 10 individuals broke into the headquarters of Sada El Balad website in Mohandeseen area, following a dispute between the producer and Sada El Balad channel in relation to one of the TV series shown on the channel.

Islam Maklad, journalist at the website, recites details of what happened:

“The incident began with the entry of Ahmed Al Sobki and a number of people to the headquarters of the website; they then started cursing the personnel. They asked about Ahmed Sami, the director of contracting and advertising marketing for the channel Sada Al Balad, and who is not connected to the website.. The editor in chief of the website, Ahmed Sabri, came out of his office and tried to calm Al Sobki trying to understand what is happening because we did not know or understand the reason behind their actions. During that, a number of journalists, including the head of “Asl el Hekayah” department, tried filming what was happening with their mobile phones, so one of the persons with Sobki snatched it from him –it was later restored. The editor in chief, accompanied by Al Sobki, entered his office; the voices were loud again..I noticed that one of the people accompanying Al Sobki was trying to close the door of the editor in chief’s office, after the voices were loud. This pushed me to try entering the office and prevent him from closing it, so Al Sobki walked towards me trying to attack me, but some of the people who were with him rushed and attacked me, and broke some of the contents of the office. We contacted the police, so Al Sobki and his companions left. We then went to the Dokki police station to file a police report, and there we were surprised to find Ahmed Al Sobki filing a report against us. The editor in chief Ahmed Sabri, journalist Islam Maklad, and the head of “Asl el Hekayah” department, Ahmed Salem, were detained to be referred to the prosecution to investigate the police report Al Sobki filed. The following day, the prosecution released the journalists under guarantee of their place of residence. Ahmed Al Sobki was also released on LE 1000 bail, pending the case”.[13]

On December 18th, journalists Mohamed Shokri and Atef Badr from AlMasry Al Youm, Israa Soleiman from AlWatan, and Aya Dabis from the Al Youm Sabea were subjected to physical assaults by members of the Special Guard of the Pharmacists Syndicate appointed by the head of the Syndicate Mohye Obaid while covering the syndicate’s elections. Mohamed Shokri, one of the assaulted journalists, said:

“We were surprised during conducting an interview with the candidate for the position of head of the syndicate, Karam Kurdi, that the general director of the syndicate and some of the guards snatched the mobile phone of journalist, Ayah Dabis, and smashed it. They then took the mobile phone of our colleague, Israa Soleiman, who was using it to record with Kurdi. The guards attacked our colleague, Atef Badr,and tried to force him out .. I tried to intervene to prevent them from attacking Atef, but one of the security personnel caught me from the back and another one tried to take the camera from me and was able to take it after they hit me in the face .. After that they locked me, Israa, and Aya in a room on the second floor. The detention continued for about an hour, until we contacted our colleagues, who came to the syndicate’s headquarters and took us out. [14]

Cases of prevention from coverage

On January 15th, the governor of Ismailia kicked out the reporters of Al Masry Al Youm and Al Wafd, Hani Abdel Rahman and Mohamed Gomaa, respectively, from the press conference held by the Minister of Manpower in the company of the Ismailia governor. Abdel Rahman said:

“While we were in the hall where the press conference was to be held, the governor entered and promptly expelled us. All the attendants were surprised, including the Minister of Manpower … We tried to ask the governor to respect our profession, telling him that what he was doing violated the rules of journalistic work, and is an insult to journalists. But he pushed us and kicked us out. It is the first incident in the history of the governorate, and even the governorates of the Suez Canal, in which an official insults journalists, and it did not happen during our twenty-year journalistic work[15]“.

Journalists working for Al Mashhad newspaper were prevented from covering the referendum on some articles of the constitution, based on a decision by the National Elections Authority whose reasons were not named.On April 20, 2019, the editor in chief of Al Mashhad newspaper Magdi Shendi published a statement in which he announced the refusal of the National Elections Authority to grant permits to Al Mashhad journalists without giving any reasons. He Said:

“The officials at the National Elections Authority did not explain why an Egyptian newspaper is prevented from covering the referendum despite submitting all the required papers on the official dates, including a letter from the Supreme Council for Media Regulation. The journalists of Al Mashhad suffer from the intransigence of a number of official authorities that does not allow them to perform their journalistic work. The head of the National Media Authority, Makram Mohammed Ahmed, promised to intervene, but his efforts failed[16]

Various media outlets where prevented from covering the vote counting processes inside the committees. The spokesman for the National Media Authority announced that media outlets are not permitted to cover the counting processes inside the sub-committees as was followed in all the elections and referendums that were organized after January 2011. The authority stated during a press conference that the media outlets are not entitled to broadcast referendum results, and that the only entity entrusted with announcing the results of the referendum in accordance with the law is the National Elections Authority.[17]

Cases of censorship of newspapers

On May 28, Amina Al Nakhash, the editor in chief of Al Ahali newspaper, received a late telephone call from a member of the General Secretariat of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, telling her that the censor objected to a feature in the issue under print at the time.  The two pages feature mentioned that some convicts in cases, described by Al Nakhash in a telephone call, as “cases of violence”, were released by presidential pardon. The member of the General Secretariat of the Council asked Al Nakhash to remove the feature and replace it so that the newspaper can be printed.

El Tagamou’ party, which issues the newspaper, said in a statement that Al Nakhash, after consultation with the editorial board and leadership of the party, refused the request to remove the feature or make any changes in the newspaper, hence printing of the newspaper was suspended. Al Nakhash said: “I refused to remove the feature for several reasons: first is that it was published on two pages, which means it cannot be replaced in this short time. Second, it was based on information from the papers of the cases, and not opinionated. Third, the frequency of interventions in our work represents a restriction on the freedom of the media that opens the doors to corrupt people. Finally, there is no legal or constitutional justification for censorship of the press, and therefore all these interventions are illegal”[18].

This was not the first incident of its kind for Al Ahali newspaper. The censor intervened to amend and remove some of the material in the issues published on the 15th and 22nd of the same month. The editorial board agreed to remove the news reports from the paper issues so they could be printed, after the news was published on the website and on social media platforms[19].

On August 5th, Dr. Mostafa El-Said, the political science professor, posted on his face book account that an article he wrote for Al-Shrouk newspaper was banned. El-Said added that the article addresses the multiple faces of poverty in Egypt, and that he relied in the article on the data from the income and expenditure survey, which was issued at the time by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. El-Said asked about the reason for preventing the article, adding that he knew that this was out of the will of Al-Shorouk Newspaper[20].

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