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memri
May 20, 2019 No.
1456

Egyptian Regime Continues Takeover Of Media, Suppression Of Criticism

Introduction

Since the ouster of Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and the rise to power of President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, the regime under Al-Sisi's leadership has been acting to take control of the media and suppress all dissent, including criticism of the regime's treatment of its opponents, its economic policies, the government's performance, or any other criticism. The regime has taken multiple measures to achieve this aim, including the takeover of public and private media by its associates, and the silencing or dismissal of journalists who dare to criticize the authorities.[1] Also to this end, the regime recently set up the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), which has sweeping powers to close and block media outlets that do not abide by its rules.

 


Logo of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (source: akhbarelyom.com)

These measures have sparked criticism and concern among journalist and media figures, who described them as violations of free speech that render the media irrelevant and therefore powerless. Their concerns have become all the more pertinent in light of Al-Sisi's current attempts to tighten his grip on power, inter alia with recent amendments to the Egyptian constitution that will allow him to remain in office until 2030. The dire state of press freedom in Egypt is reflected in the Press Freedom Index for 2018, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, ranked Egypt in the 161st place out of 180 countries.[2] 

This report reviews the Egyptian regime's latest moves to restrict the media.

Having Taken Over The Private Media, Al-Sisi Associates Turn To Take Over The Public Media

Some 18 months ago, it was reported that businessmen close to President Al-Sisi and to Egyptian intelligence circles had taken control of the Egyptian Media Group. Since then, this group has managed to take over most of the private media in Egypt, including most television stations and some of Egypt's news websites and papers,[3] a move that was harshly condemned by Egyptian journalists.[4] Furthermore, it was recently reported that the Egyptian Media Group has taken steps to control public media as well, by signing a contract with Egypt's National Media Authority, which is in charge of public broadcasting, to take part in developing content for Egypt's public channels.[5] Egyptian author Dr. 'Azza Ahmad Haikal responded to these reports, writing: "The public knows very well who manages this media company. It has taken control of private channels, and now it is on its way to controlling all of Egypt's official state media. This is a very grave and dangerous problem, and people who care about the media, the experts, academics and [all] patriots... must demand an end to this hegemony and takeover of the Egyptian media..."[6]

Ongoing Intervention In Media Content, Dismissal Of Outspoken Journalists

The regime's takeover of many media outlets has resulted in growing intervention by the security apparatuses in  the content being published, and in the ongoing persecution of journalists. For example, Al-Masri Al-Yawm editor Muhammad Sayyid Saleh was dismissed from his post in April 2018 for publishing a report, on the day of the presidential elections, whose headline implied that the state had "recruited" voters using financial incentives.[7] On January 29, 2019, journalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada, a regime opponent who has been persecuted by the regime since 2013, was arrested for publishing fake news, and was released on bail in early March.[8] Aya Hamed, a columnist for the Al-Dustour daily, was arrested on March 27, 2019 on similar charges for reporting about a rape and murder incident at Al-Azhar University.[9]  The editor of the Shababik website, targeted at young people, and his brother were arrested for reporting on the same incident and released several days later.[10]

These measures against the media and journalists have almost completely eliminated all articles and reports criticizing Al-Sisi or holding him personally responsible for the situation in Egypt, including the dire economic crisis and government mismanagement. Dr. Muhammad Abu Al-Ghar, a physician and a lecturer at Cairo University, wrote in Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "After the June 30 revolution [against Muhammad Morsi], the pressure [on the Egyptian media] began, with instructions handed down to editors-in-chief who started censoring their own papers... This affected the columnists, who began to realize that there are certain topics they must not discuss and others that are best avoided. This was [first] evident in the headlines and later in the news and the way it was presented, to the point where important news was often removed altogether or mentioned only in passing, in a part of the paper which no one reads."[11]

In light of this situation, over the past six months no few articles have appeared condemning the suppression of the media. Their authors argued that the regime is leading the media to collapse, since a restricted and uniform media is uninteresting, and the public therefore stops consuming it, thereby divesting it of influence.[12] Other journalists warned that the Egyptian media is growing shallow and unprofessional,[13] and that, as a result, the Egyptian public is turning to satellite channels and social media, some of which support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and other regime opponents. This means that the regime's policies are ultimately self-defeating, they said. The deposed editor of Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Muhammad Sayyid Saleh, wrote: "I remember that when I was a child my father and uncles would run after the [radio] broadcasts on Radio Monte Carlo, the VOA, and the BBC in order to know what was happening inside Egypt. [Egypt's] nationalized media was sparse and shallow. This era is on its way back. [But] even more dangerous is that today in this arena there are several landmines – [for example] channels hostile to Egypt broadcasting from Turkey, Europe, and Qatar. The viewership of these channels is rising even among MB opponents. Although the decision maker knows this, he decides to silence [Egypt's] news voices..."[14] 

Regime Compiles List Of Harsh Penalties To Be Used Against Media Outlets

Another measure taken by the regime, in July 2018, was the passing of several laws restricting the press and the freedom of expression and setting up three state bodies for regulating the media: the aforementioned SCMR and National Media Authority, and the National Press Authority. The laws grant these bodies sweeping powers to closely monitor all media activity in Egypt and penalize media outlets that do not toe the line, including even blogs and private social media users with 5,000 followers or more.

These laws sparked criticism, including from journalists, when they were passed.[15] This criticism intensified recently, after the SCMR published a detailed list of regulations that the media must follow, and of penalties to be imposed on outlets that fail to do so. The severe penalties set by the SCMR include fines of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds (about $15,000) and the closing down of media outlets.[16] As for the regulations themselves, some are vaguely and broadly worded, allowing the authorities to enforce them arbitrarily and thus severely restrict the journalists' freedom. For example, they prohibit "inventing false facts, making baseless accusations without proof... and publishing or airing fake news, rumors... [or reports] that threaten the national fabric, harm state institutions or the general interest of the state, incite mass rebellion, disparage the opinions of others, and relay information from social media without verifying its credibility."

Another regulation prohibits "discussing isolated cases in general terms while treating them as broad phenomena," and yet another states that " Non-compliance with the principles of press and media coverage of military or security operations or terror incidents will be deemed an offence punishable by the suspension or temporary blocking of the page, portal, program or website." In addition, the regulations prohibit criticizing any civil servant or state official for conduct not strictly related to his duties or if the criticism is not intended to serve the public interest.

Media figures described these regulations as an attempt to prevent them from presenting any information or opinion that displeases the regime or does not conform to its official position, for any such information can arbitrarily be characterized as threatening national security, the state institutions or the public interest. 

Immediately after approving these regulations, the SCMR indeed began to enforce them. On March 22, 2019, it reportedly ordered the six-month closure of the Al-Mashhad website, known to be critical of the regime, and also fined it, for posting images of a sexual nature.[17] Several days later, it reportedly canceled two television programs, one for a month and the other permanently, for violating media ethics and the Syndicate of Journalists' Media Charter of Honor.[18]

The list of penalties sparked outrage among journalists even before its final approval, and over 500 journalists, politicians and other public figures signed a petition against it.[19] 'Imad Al-Din Hussein, editor of the independent daily Al-Shurouq, warned in a January 2019 article that these penalties give the SCMR "Hitler-like, Mussolini-like, Saddam-like and ISIS-like powers."[20] Following its approval, the criticism intensified Tal'at Isma'il wrote in Al-Shurouq: "Hands shaking [with fear] will not produce high-quality media. Increased persecution, and the blocking, stopping and banning [of publications] will have disastrous effects on the freedom of expression and opinion, on the profession of journalism and on society itself, for a society cannot progress when arbitrary lists [of regulations] seal its [media] outlets."[21] 

Karima Kamal, columnist for the Al-Masri Al-Yawm daily, criticized the vague and arbitrary nature of the list: "The clauses are too general, and invent new crimes such as violating public order and ethics, and [disregard] the considerations and demands of national security, or harm the interest of the state. They address [even] the smallest details of [our] professional activities, so that ' discussing isolated cases in general terms while treating them as broad phenomena' has become a crime. That is how far this list goes in eliminating [our] profession."[22] Journalists' Syndicate board member Muhammad Sa'd 'Abd Al-Hafiz wrote: "The list includes several penalties and fines that contravene the law, and create a situation whereby media outlets that continue publishing their content take an uncalculated risk, unless they – the newspaper editors, websites and channels – stick to the positions and editing policies dictated by the regime. Any [outlet] that strays [from them] risks closure, blocking or a fine."[23]

Appendix: The List Of Regulations And Penalties Issued By The Supreme Council For Media Regulation (SCMR)

The following are some of the SCMR's regulations and penalties, which reflect the extent of the Egyptian regime's intervention in and restriction of the media:[24]

 "Article 14: The publication of any material or report, by any media or press institution or outlet, [including any] newspaper or website, whose content contravenes the articles of the Egyptian Constitution, incites violating the law, contravenes the commitments of the [Media] Charter of Honor, [violates] public order or public morals, encourages licentiousness or lewdness, or offends religions or religious schools in a manner that threatens public security, will be deemed an offense punishable by one or more of the following penalties, at the discretion of the SCMR:

  1. A notice.
  2. A demand to publish an apology equal in prominence to the offensive publication.
  3. A fine of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds or the equivalent sum in a foreign currency.
  4. Suspension of publication or distribution, the blocking of the website or portal, or [the cancelation] of the program, temporarily or permanently.

"Article 15: The failure, on the part of a newspaper or media outlet, to formulate an editorial policy that is included in the contracts signed with its employees upon hiring, or the violation of the SCMR's decisions or standards, or the forcing of an employee to violate the editorial policy or the [SCRM's] decisions or standards,  will be deemed an offense punishable by one or more of the following penalties, at the discretion of the SCMR:

  1. A warning.
  2. A fine of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds or the equivalent sum in a foreign currency.
  3. Suspension of publication or distribution, or the blocking of the offensive material for a definite period of time, without detracting from the SCMR's right to take measures to revoke the [media outlet's] license, according to the law.

"Article 16: Should a newspaper, media outlet or website use, or permit the use, of expressions that include invective, curses, slander, disparagement or dishonoring of individuals; that cast doubt on [individual's] financial integrity, violate their right to privacy, deceive the public, invent false facts, cast baseless accusations without proof, or threaten or offend public sensibilities, this will be deemed an offense punishable by one or more of the following penalties, at the discretion of the SCMR:

  1. A notice.
  2. A demand to publish an apology equal in prominence to the offensive publication.
  3. A warning.
  4. A fine of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds or the equivalent sum in a foreign currency.
  5. Suspension of publication or distribution, or the blocking of the offensive material for a definite period of time.
  6. The blocking of non-private websites for a definite time period or permanently.
  7. The blocking of private websites with 5,000 followers or more for a definite time period or permanently.

"Article 17: Publishing or airing fake news, rumors, or content that calls for or incites illegal [activity], violence, hatred, discrimination, sectarianism, racism, [actions that] threaten the national fabric, harm state institutions or the general interests of the state, incite mass rebellion, disparage the opinions of others, or relay information from social media without verifying its credibility – will be deemed an offense punishable by one or more of the following penalties, at the discretion of the SCMR:

  1. A fine of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds or the equivalent sum in a foreign currency.
  2. Suspension of publication or distribution, the blocking of the website or portal, or [the cancelation of] the program, temporarily or permanently.

"Article 18: A media outlet, newspaper or website may address the conduct of a civil servant or state official [only] if [the remarks] are strictly relevant to his duties... and are intended to serve public interest. Otherwise the publication will be deemed an offense punishable by one or more of the following penalties, at the discretion of the SCMR:

  1. A notice.
  2. A demand to publish an apology equal in prominence to the offensive publication.
  3. A fine of up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds or the equivalent sum in a foreign currency.

"Article 21: Should a newspaper, media outlet or website hold a discussion, or allow to hold a discussion, that addresses isolated cases in general terms and treats them as a broad phenomenon, in a manner that detracts from the citizens' right to consume media that is free, fair, professional and in keeping with Egypt's cultural identity – this will be deemed  an offense punishable by one or more of the following penalties, at the discretion of the SCMR:

  1. A notice.
  2. A demand to publish an apology equal in prominence to the offensive publication.
  3. A fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds or the equivalent sum in a foreign currency.

"Article 22: Non-compliance with the principles of press and media coverage of military or security operations or terror incidents will be deemed an offense punished by the suspension of publication or broadcasting, or the temporary blocking of the page, portal or website. In case the SCMR deems the offense severe, it shall be authorized to take the measures detailed in Article 6 of this list."[25]

 

*Y. Graf is a research fellow at MEMRI; H. Varulkar is MEMRI's Director of Research.

 

[2] Rsf.org/en/ranking.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 8, 2018.

[5] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 22, 2019.

[6] Al-Wafd (Egypt), January 21, 2019.

[7] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), April 11, 2018.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 17, 2019; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), March 2, 2019.

[9] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 28, 2019.

[10] Rassd.com, April 1, 2019; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 8, 2019.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 24, 2018.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 20, 2018.

[13] Al-Wafd (Egypt), January 21, 2019.

[14] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), August 18, 2018.

[16] Scm.gov.eg, March 25, 2019.

[17] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 22, 2019.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 25, 2019.

[19] Madamasr.com, December 9, 2018.

[20] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 15, 2019.

[21] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), March 26, 2019.

[22] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), March 28, 2019.

[23] Madamasr.com, March 20, 2019.

[24] Scm.gov.eg, March 25, 2019.

[25] Article 6 sets out the following penalties: closure of the website or suspension of the broadcasting license of a media outlet without preventing it from carrying out its other activities, such as preparing reports, filming, documenting, and signing contracts according to the accepted norms of the SCMR, until its publication is renewed.