Presidential election campaign banners in downtown Cairo on March 7, 2018. At least four journalists have been detained since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared his re-election bid. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Presidential election campaign banners in downtown Cairo on March 7, 2018. At least four journalists have been detained since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared his re-election bid. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Censorship tightens in Egypt as el-Sisi prepares for re-election bid

Ahead of elections in Egypt later this month, in which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is seeking a second term, the authoritarian leader’s government has further clamped down on press freedom, issuing warnings to the media and arresting critical journalists on “false news” charges. Even satirical TV shows have not been spared, with AFP reporting how the media regulator suspended broadcasts of the ONTV show “Saturday Night Live bil Arabi” last month over accusations that it violated ethical standards.

Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation–a body set up in 2016 under a decree by el-Sisi–banned four other entertainment and satirical shows on moral grounds last month, according to news reports.

Alongside the bans, and warnings by authorities in January that journalists deemed to be violating ethical or moral standards will be penalized, el-Sisi’s anti-press rhetoric has increased.

On March 1, the president warned the media that any coverage deemed defamatory of the military or police would be considered treason rather than freedom of opinion, Reuters reported.

During the same speech, the president warned officials and Egyptians to be wary of attempts by “forces of evil” to undermine the safety and security of the nation. “I won’t hold anyone accountable for having an opinion. But I won’t allow it to be presented to the people,” el-Sisi added, according to the daily, Al-Shorouk.

Since el-Sisi announced his bid for reelection in January, CPJ has documented the cases of four journalists detained after interviewing opposition candidates, being critical of el-Sisi or for having alleged linked to opposition or activist groups:

  • Moataz Wadnan, a reporter for the Istanbul-based Huffington Post Arabi, was arrested on February 16 after interviewing Hisham Geneina, who was part of an opposition candidate’s team and is now also in custody, according to local reports. A National Security Prosecutor on March 5 ordered Wadnan’s detention to be renewed for 15 days, according to news reports.
  • Ahmed Tarek Ibrahim Ziada, a documentary film editor whom authorities say is affiliated with the anti-government April 6 Youth Movement, was arrested outside Cairo on February 28 on charges of spreading false news and joining a banned group. The charges relate to “Minus 1095 Days,” a critical documentary with a title that parodies the state-produced film “1095 Days,” about el-Sisi’s accomplishments in office. The State Security Prosecution on March 5 renewed Ziada’s detention for an additional 15 days, according to news reports.
  • Mai el-Sabagh and Ahmad Mustafa, from the local news website Raseef22, were arrested in Alexandria on February 28 and charged with possessing “photographic tools” that would spread false news, along with other national security charges, including being members of the banned April 6 youth organization. An Alexandria prosecutor ordered the detention to be extended for 15 more days, el-Sabagh’s lawyer, Mohamed Ramadan, told CPJ last week.

Egyptian authorities are also clamping down on critical reports they deem to be “fake news.” The Prosecutor General issued a statement on February 28 ordering state prosecutors to monitor media reports and take action against any outlets publishing “false news, [false] statements, and rumors,” The Associated Press and Reuters reported. The statement came shortly after authorities criticized the BBC for a human rights story that Egypt claimed was fabricated.

CPJ is aware of at least two journalists currently in hiding for fear of arrest after being accused of “fake news.” Ahmed Al-Khatib, who worked for the pro government daily Al-Watan, is in hiding after being convicted in absentia to four years in prison on March 7, according to reports and the journalist’s colleagues. And Selma Alaa Eddin, who also worked on “Minus 1095 Days,” is also in hiding for fear of arrest, one of the filmmaker’s colleagues, who asked to remain anonymous for security concerns, told CPJ.

A third journalist–television host Khairi Ramadan–was detained for two nights this month and charged with insult and disseminating fake news after reporting on the financial needs of police on his state TV program “Egypt Today.” Ramadan is currently out on bail.

The statement by the prosecutor general is seen by many rights activists and colleagues of jailed reporters as a signal that no journalist is safe.

“Freedom of expression is dying in Egypt,” Negad el-Borai, the human rights lawyer who defended Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy when he was imprisoned in Egypt in 2015, wrote on Twitter on March 8. The post decried the arrest of el-Sabagh.

His view was echoed by the family and colleagues of el-Sabagh, and press freedom advocates, who note that the journalist was not even covering a sensitive issue at the time of her arrest.

“There is no legal definition for evil,” el-Sabagh’s lawyer, Ramadan, said in reference to the Prosecutor General’s statement. Speaking to CPJ on March 8, the same day he represented el-Sabagh at an investigation session, the lawyer added, “They worry from any journalist writing about any topic in the street.”