Egypt launches unprecedented crackdown on media ahead of Sisi re-election bid
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Disinformation, militarisation of the press and outright repression: These are the tools of media control in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt as he heads into a virtually uncontested election.
Despite having passed a constitution in 2014 that guaranteed freedom of thought, opinion, artistic and literary creativity, and the press, the Egyptian government has waged an intensifying and increasingly arbitrary battle to exert control over virtually all forms of public expression ever since.
Even more so than previous regimes, Sisi’s government is willing to brook no criticism. No longer content with simply influencing press coverage, state security services have been quietly buying up media properties for more than a year. A recent report said that the top editors of many of the country’s newspapers would be subject to mandatory training at a Cairo military academy, a move that Berlin-based journalist Walid el-Sheikh called part of the “militarisation of media discourse”.
“These steps are unprecedented in the history of Egypt, making Sisi’s oppression worse than that of [former presidents Hosni] Mubarak or even [Gamal Abdel] Nasser,” el-Sheikh said.
In recent days, the government has gone to war with the BBC over a short documentary on forced disappearances and torture, issuing multiple statements saying the broadcast was “flagrantly fraught with lies". Many reputable NGOs have issued reports about torture in Egypt, which Human Rights Watch dubbed the “calling card” of Egyptian security services.
Controlling the press
The grab for the media began shortly after Sisi deposed Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in June, 2013 and ran along well-worn lines, beginning with the purging of anyone suspected of supporting Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Amid a fervour of nationalism, the news media and the public at large rallied around then-general Sisi, and even normally independent and dissenting voices hailed him as the saviour of Egypt. He was swept into the presidency in May 2014 with nearly 97 percent of the vote. Against the backdrop of an expanding Islamist insurgency that was regularly taking the lives of soldiers and security personnel, particularly in the Sinai peninsula, the press was largely patriotic and generally unquestioning of the new president -- so much so that in October 2014, a group of newspaper editors signed a pledge to limit criticism of the government.
Sisi, for his part, was casting his presidency in Manichean terms. One was either with him or against him. Those who were against him were painted as part of a massive conspiracy against Egypt funded by outsiders and aimed at bringing down the state. The invocation of “foreign hands” is an old trick among Egyptian rulers, who, since the 1952 revolution, have relied on xenophobia and whispers of hostile agendas to shift blame and justify heavy-handed tactics.
“The focus was on media rhetoric, vilifying the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone who stands against the military and Sisi, naming everyone not in that camp as a traitor,” said Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “But it was more media propaganda, rather than media punishment, as we are seeing right now.”
The Egyptian press was largely compliant, but the foreign press was trickier to control. After sending several emails to accredited foreign journalists insisting that they were permitted to publish only information provided by the government (the disagreements with the journalists were generally over military death counts in Sinai), in 2015 the Egyptian parliament passed an anti-terrorism law that held that journalists could face two years in jail if they reported information about attacks that contradicted government statements. The two-year punishment was later downgraded to a fine.
Around the same time, an organisation called Fact Check Egypt started sending foreign reporters emails critiquing their articles and telling them where, in the eyes of the government, they had gotten their facts wrong.
In February of 2016, Sisi told the nation in a televised address not to “listen to anybody’s words but mine”. By the end of that year, the government had passed a law establishing a Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, whose chairman would be picked by Sisi and which would have increased supervision over the press.
Buying the press
But even that wasn’t enough oversight, it seems. Since the end of 2016, the General Intelligence Service (GIS) has been buying controlling stakes in media companies, first through holding companies, but lately more openly. Former military intelligence officers oversee two satellite channels. And a private equity fund reportedly owned by GIS has become the sole proprietor of a media group that holds the popular ONtv channel, and the widely read Youm7 newspaper and website, among other properties.
“If they weren’t interested in disinformation they would not have bought the media,” Okail said. “They want to control the narrative.”
The campaign to control information didn’t stop with mainstream media. In early 2017 the government hired APCO, an American public affairs consultancy, to launch EgyptForward.com, which aims to “inform international audiences on the historic, transformative progress taking place in Egypt”. It also instigated a phishing campaign, dubbed Nile Phish, against NGOs. A Twitter site called @Egypt_Speaks denounces people and reports critical of the regime and presents the government’s view.
“In the past they used to have a trolling technique,” Okail said. “Now they have very well trained social media [advisers].”
Even while the government has been putting up propagandistic websites it has been blocking others, including those of independent media and thinktanks that publish work critical of the government. At the end of last year, access to 425 websites had been cut off.
Authorities are ensuring that “their version of the truth is the only truth by making sure there are no local media outlets that can challenge it and, recently, shutting down any online outlets that are telling the story in a different way”, said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Jailing the press
All along, journalists who have run afoul of the official line have been thrown in prison. Egypt is the third largest jailer of journalists in the world, Mansour said, with 20 members of the press currently behind bars. Twelve of those have not been convicted of or sentenced for a crime, and several suffer from serious health conditions.
Egypt is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Journalists are jailed for even the most trivial of matters. In one of the more puzzling cases, two local reporters were recently arrested in Alexandria while filming a report on that city’s historic tramway.
Being a friend of the regime is no protection either. Talk show host Khairy Ramadan is a known loyalist, but after interviewing the wife of a police officer who fretted that she couldn’t make ends meet on her husband’s meagre salary last month, he found himself looking at the four walls of a prison cell. His arrest sparked a furore among pro-government media personalities and he was soon released on bail, but the arrest sent a strong signal that none of them is safe.
“Consistently, by legal measures, by public statements, by direct meetings [the authorities] have made it clear that the handling of security- and military-related issues should be strictly towing the government line,” Mansour said.
The government was similarly twitchy with the international media, pulling out all the stops to denounce a BBC short documentary about torture. Foreign correspondents received multiple emails excoriating the report, a tactic that the State Information Service (SIS) had used in the past to repudiate articles by the New York Times, Reuters and others.
The head of Egypt’s National Information Agency responded by issuing a decision to stop “media cooperation” with the BBC, and the head of SIS called on officials and the elite to refrain from giving the BBC interviews. The government has repeatedly demanded that the BBC apologise.
To repudiate the report, a young woman whose mother had appeared in the documentary saying that her daughter had been “disappeared” nearly a year ago and had not been heard from since, suddenly appeared on a pro-government talk show claiming that she had simply gotten married and had a child and, for various “reasons”, had not been in touch with her mother.
Days after the report aired, Egypt’s prosecutor general ordered prosecutors across the country to begin monitoring media outlets and social media platforms and to press charges against anyone disseminating news that “harms national interests”.
“This is going into a more oppressive direction,” Okail said. “This is not new, it’s just a deeper level of repression and a more sophisticated way of doing it.”
“It is the worst time to be a journalist in Egypt,” Mansour said.
The presidential election will be held from March 26 to March 28, and its outcome is virtually certain.