New York, May 26, 2017–Egyptian authorities should immediately stop blocking access to news websites, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The Egyptian government on May 24 ordered internet service providers to block access to 21 news websites, alleging that they supported terrorism or reported “false news,” the government’s official Middle East News Agency reported.
The report did not provide a full list of the censored websites, but said that those of Qatari-funded broadcaster Al-Jazeera, the broadcaster Al-Sharq, and the news websites Masr al-Arabia, Al-Shaab, and Rassd were among the websites blocked for publishing “content that supports terrorism and extremism and deliberately spreads lies.” According to media reports and journalists at the websites, the Huffington Post‘s Arabic-language website and the independent news website Mada Masr, which is known for its investigative reporting, were also censored.
Online censorship is rare in Egypt. In January 2011, faced with mass protests that eventually forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, the government cut access to the internet, and the government has harassed, threatened, and jailed journalists for websites. In October 2016, the Open Observatory of Network Interference, which documents internet censorship, reported that Egypt had blocked access to the London-based news website Al-Arab al-Jadid, throttled encrypted, HTTPS connections, and had attempted to block access to Tor, software designed to make it harder to monitor internet users or censor websites, but access to news websites has rarely been blocked in the country.
“Broad censorship of news websites represents a new low in Egypt’s lamentable record on press freedom,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said. “Egyptian authorities should cease blocking news websites and should allow the media to do its job unimpeded.”
Mada Masr co-founder Lina Attalah told CPJ that the government did not inform staff that the website was to be blocked, and that when staff were unable to access the website yesterday, they first assumed there was a problem with the internet connection. She said that she did not know if a specific article precipitated the ban, but said that in recent months the website produced many reports that might have embarrassed high-ranking officials.
Mada Masr reported today that Egypt’s censorship of Qatari websites coincided with similar bans in Gulf countries, but that Mada Masr was still accessible in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Technical experts told Mada Masr that they had concluded that Egyptian internet service providers were using “RST injections,” also used to censor websites in China, to block access to the website.
Anas Fouda, editor of Huffington Post‘s Arabic website, likewise told CPJ that the site had been blocked without forewarning. Fouda told CPJ that the website’s reporting on Egypt had drawn calls from pro-government media for the website to be blocked. He said that many of the website’s readers come from Egypt, and that he fears for the safety of dozens of freelance contributors in the country.
On December 1, 2016, when CPJ last conducted its annual census of journalists jailed around the world, at least 25 journalists were imprisoned in the country in direct relation to their work.