Hours after two bombs ripped through packed Palm Sunday services in Coptic Churches in Alexandria and Tanta on April 9, killing nearly 50 people, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a three-month state of emergency. The measure is in many ways an extension of what has already been in place in parts of the Sinai Peninsula since 2014, and a further sign of Sisi’s determination to control the flow of information in the country.
Sisi has hinted that the measures, which parliament approved today, will include further restrictions to the press, saying, “The media discourse [on attacks] has to be responsible,” The New York Times reported.
The state of emergency grants the government power to review and censor all local media reports before publication, and to confiscate newspapers deemed to be in violation of the law, the independent outlet Mada Masr reported. Already, al-Bawaba has reported that authorities twice this week seized physical copies of its newspaper. The paper, which has traditionally been pro-government, did not say why the copies were confiscated.
Egypt’s use of laws and emergency measures to silence critics is not new. A law passed in 2015 to criminalize the spread of false news–broadly defined as publishing any news that contradicts the government narrative–has already affected the press. At least 10 journalists were imprisoned on false news charges at the time of CPJ’s last prison census and Al-Jazeera news producer Mahmoud Hussein, whose arrest CPJ covered in December, recently marked 100 days in detention on accusations of spreading false news.
Accusations of terrorism are also used against many of the other journalists imprisoned for their work, including two who cover Sinai, CPJ found. This use of legislation to target journalists reporting on unrest in the region shows how the government can, in effect, shut down independent reporting.
Bound by the Suez Canal on one side and Egypt’s land border with the rest of the Middle East on the other, Sinai, has long been an area of strategic concern for the country. After a series of terror attacks in recent years, the Egyptian military stepped up its operations in Sinai and authorities introduced legislation giving the Ministry of Defense power over the flow of information.
Under Article 35 of the law, publishing or sharing “false news” about terrorism or government response to it punishable by a 250,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,000 to US$28,000) fine and gives courts authority to bar any journalist ruled to be in violation of the law from working in Egypt for up to a year. The legislation defines false news as reports contradicting official Ministry of Defense statements.
Egyptian journalists with whom CPJ spoke said that since the state of emergency was passed in Sinai in 2014, harassment and detentions have increased. A fear of arrest and threats from pro-military supporters has further deterred some journalists from reporting on the region.
The emergency measure was passed by Sisi and his cabinet immediately after Wilayat Sinai, a group aligned with the militants Islamic State, attempted to take control of the town of Sheikh Zuweid in North Sinai in July 2015.
“The impact of this law was immediate,” Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist and author who reports on the region, told CPJ. At the time the measure was passed, media outlets in Egypt were reporting that the military suffered 61 casualties in the Wilayat Sinai attack, “but as soon as the military command decided it was 17, almost of those outlets were forced to change the figure, with the exception of a few who are mainly international outlets,” he said.
The law has codified a repressive atmosphere for journalists in the region, Sabry said. He told CPJ that an editor at an Egyptian newspapers told him that while they were aware of what was happening in Sinai through their reporters, none of them could publish the reports, either because of the law specifically or because of threats more generally from the security apparatus or military.
Sabry, who did not name the editor, said that the journalist told him, “Being fired from your job is the least that could happen if you piss off the authorities when it comes to Sinai.”
The Egyptian Embassy in Washington D.C. did not immediately respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment about claims that authorities harass and threaten journalists.
Ahmed Abu Deraa, a reporter for Al-Masry al-Youm who has been arrested three times for his work, told CPJ he stopped covering stories involving the military a year ago. In used to be “somewhat possible” to cover the region, Abu Deraa said, but now any news report must reference a military source, and cities such as Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid are almost totally off-limits.
Abu Deraa was first arrested on accusations of reporting false information about the military in September 2013, before the terror law was passed. A military court sentenced him the following month to a six-month suspended prison sentence and 200 Egyptian pound fine. In November 2015, authorities detained the journalist for three days before releasing him without charge, while Abu Deraa was attempting to cover parliamentary elections for Al-Masry al-Youm in Sinai. The journalist, who is from Sheikh Zuweid–an area that has been the scene of several attacks–said he was arrested for a third time at a checkpoint earlier this year and detained for eight days, while in possession of his press pass.
“Every journalist is banned,” Abu Deraa said. “They have no exceptions. We can’t cover Sinai except through some statements that hide more [information] than they reveal.”
Abu Deraa said that although his reporting has been restricted by the 2015 terror law, the legislation formalized restrictions already in place that target journalists.
Mona El-Zamlout, who reported from the region for Al-Jazeera from 2013-2016, told CPJ she believes the situation in Sinai is bad for journalists, not because of the anti-terror law, but because the military is more determined to cut off access to information as its campaign in Sinai intensifies.
While others journalists reporting from parts of Syria and Iraq that are under Islamic State control faced the risk of kidnap or murder, el-Zamlout said the group allowed her to operate relatively freely in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, a situation she attributes to her being of Bedouin background from North Sinai. That access may have made her more of a suspect in the eyes of the government, she said, adding that she has received threatening phone calls and social media posts because of her work. Screenshots of some of the threats, viewed by CPJ, showed menacing comments about the journalist that were posted to a pro-military Facebook page and which included a link to her Facebook account.
El-Zamlout said that threats were behind her decision to stop reporting under her own name last year. Her Facebook account is no longer active. She added that the military is increasingly trying to control the narrative in Sinai by harassing and threatening journalists. She said that journalists face the risk of arrest if they are carrying a camera when stopped at a military checkpoint or if they get too close to a military watchtower near the border.
The harassment experienced by Sinai’s press shows how emergency measures and anti-terror legislation can be used by authorities to try to control coverage. Sisi’s new state of emergency could further allow the government to crackdown on independent reporting.
[CPJ Middle East and North Africa intern Marwa Morgan contributed to this blog post.]