How Egyptian media workers are intimidated systematically
Al-Sisi, a former top general, likes to showcase his country as an anchor of stability and a regional power of political and military relevance. He also points to a booming economy offering great prospects for multinational corporations. This is the picture he tried to paint once more when visiting Brussels for the African Union–EU summit in February 2022. However, Egypt’s dictator encountered headwinds in the EU capital. Human-rights groups seized the opportunity to protest against his regime’s civil-rights abuses. Moreover, their fierce criticism was echoed by members of the European parliaments and even government officials.
In early February, 175 members of various European parliaments appealed to the UN Human Rights Council. They asked it to step up pressure on Egypt’s regime to stop systematically violating fundamental rights. Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, later announced Germany would make future arms exports to Egypt dependent on the human-rights situation. Human-rights organisations called on the EU Commission not to roll out the red carpet for al-Sisi in Brussels, demanding instead that Egypt’s human-rights crisis should be put on the agenda.
The non-governmental Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) used al-Sisi’s visit to Brussels to appeal to the EU Commission to stop business as usual with Egypt. “Al-Sisi has systematically attacked the press, imprisoned journalists and silenced critical voices,” the CPJ stated.
These are indeed testing times for Egyptian media and journalists who dare to criticise their government. In 2021, the country ranked 166th out of 180 nations in the World Press Freedom Index, which is compiled annually by the international NGO Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans frontières – RSF) (see Jörg Döbereiner on www.dandc.eu). According to RSF, 22 journalists and two citizen reporters are currently behind bars in Egypt. This makes the country “one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists”. The number of imprisoned media professionals is higher only in three countries: Saudi Arabia, China and Myanmar.
Draconian laws, arbitrary allegations
Journalists and media professionals are arrested, tried and sentenced for government-critical reporting. Compounding the problems, many become victims of arbitrary processes based on vaguely formulated laws and accusations. At the end of 2021, the reporters Hisham Fouad and Hossam Moanis were sentenced to four years in prison by a Cairo court for “spreading false news in Egypt and abroad”. When Fouad was arrested in Cairo in 2019, he was initially accused of “economic conspiracy” and even “terrorism”. Egyptian law enforcement often uses terrorism charges to silence critical voices.
According to RSF, Egypt now has a “draconian legislative arsenal” that limits media freedom in the country. The 2015 Anti-Terrorism Law is an example. It stops journalists disseminating anything but official information about terrorist attacks. Violators face legal action under the Anti-Terrorism Law and risk hefty prison sentences.
In 2018, the government enacted two more pieces of legislation that hugely restrict free speech and press freedom:
- The Cybercrime Law compels telecommunication companies to store user data for 180 days.
- The Media Law regulates the licensing of press organs and paved the way for the establishment of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, a body wholly controlled by the executive. It allows the regime to manipulate Egypt’s media landscape at will. Significantly, the Council is based in the Maspero television building in downtown Cairo, where the state broadcasting company is headquartered.
Bringing the media into line
With these and other laws, the regime has created an environment in which Egypt’s media are legally compelled to toe the government line. This system is very effective. Even under Hosni Mubarak, the long-term dictator who was overthrown in 2011, public reporting was never subject to the degree of state control that is exercised today. It was risky to criticise the government in the Mubarak years, but private media companies had far more leeway – as long as their reporting was largely in the regime’s interest. Al-Sisi, by contrast, relies on direct control of the press. He has systematically extended state influence even in private media companies.
Businessmen and politicians were forced to sell their stakes in TV networks and newspapers. Some had to withdraw from media business entirely. Companies associated with the foreign intelligence agency GIS (General Intelligence Service) took over their shares. In 2016, steel tycoon Ahmed Abu Hashima – a businessman close to the regime – started buying up newspapers and television networks for his holding company called the Egyptian Media Group (EMG). Shortly afterwards, Abu Hashima’s shares in EMG were transferred to Eagle Capital, an investment firm which belongs to the GIS. This was revealed by Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news platform in 2017.
EMG owns the popular TV networks ONTV and CBS, six newspapers, two movie and television production companies as well as seven marketing and advertising agencies. In addition to the state broadcaster, al-Sisi’s regime thus controls important components of private-sector media. It uses its media power to disseminate pro-government narratives and propaganda. The acquisition of television-production companies, in particular, was central to al-Sisi’s efforts to breathe new life into Egypt’s run-down film industry. He wants to harness it for political purposes. ONTV and other broadcasters now release one glossy TV production after another, flooding screens and social media with pro-government propaganda.
As the state thus dominates the conventional media sector, the internet is now the only space where free speech is still possible. Even this space is shrinking. In 2017, Egyptian authorities began blocking internet content critical of the government. Since then, domestic access to at least 500 websites has been blocked, including prominent news and NGO websites (see box).
Government-critical content on the internet is not simply blocked. The security apparatus documents related items and uses them for criminal prosecutions. In recent years, countless people were arrested and taken to court for criticising the regime or expressing unwelcome opinions on the internet.
Sofian Philip Naceur works as a project manager for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tunis and as a freelance journalist. His work focuses on Egypt and Algeria.