Washington D.C, April 4, 2018–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the retaliatory measures taken by Egyptian authorities against the independent news website Masr al-Arabia for its coverage of last week’s presidential elections and calls on the authorities to release the website’s editor.
Since April 1, Egyptian authorities have shuttered Masr al-Arabia‘s office in Cairo, arrested its editor-in-chief, and levied a fine against the website after it allegedly violated election regulations, according to news reports.
“Having threatened the press ahead of the vote, various Egyptian authorities now appear to be competing to see who can most stringently enforce censorship in the wake of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s reelection,” CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator said. “We call on the Egyptian government to ease this relentless crackdown and let the news media do its job of holding power to account.”
CPJ’s requests for comment sent via email to Egyptian media regulators and the prosecutor general’s office were not immediately answered.
At least 10 plainclothes police who said they belonged to local municipality authorities yesterday raided Masr al-Arabia‘s office and held its journalists for five hours. The group of men then ordered staff out of the building and sealed the doors with red wax, according to Masr al-Arabia, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information press freedom group, and news reports. The website’s staff is operating remotely, according to a statement from Masr al-Arabia issued late yesterday after the raid.
Police yesterday also arrested the website’s editor-in-chief, Adel Sabri, claiming that Masr al-Arabia lacks requisite licensing. Police took him to Dokki prison in Cairo. The editor today appeared in front of a district prosecutor whose name has not been released and who is still deciding if Sabri should be freed, the video department head Ahmed Gamal Ziada told CPJ.
In its statement, Masr al-Arabia wrote that police told Sabri he should pay a 50,000 Egyptian pound (US$2841) fine imposed on the paper on April 1 by Egypt’s media regulator, the High Council for Media.
The regulator issued the fine after Masr al-Arabia published its Arabic translation of a critical New York Times report alleging election violations, which the regulator labeled as “fake news.” The website has refused to pay the fine, according to the Masr al-Arabia statement.
In police custody, Sabri also refused to pay the fine, saying that police could not enforce the media regulator’s order, according to the statement.
Since February, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation–a body set up in 2016 under a decree by el-Sisi–banned several entertainment and satirical shows on moral grounds, CPJ documented at the time. Last week, the body threatened journalists with retaliatory actions if their reporting was “unethical,” and fined at least one other outlet, al-Masry al-Youm daily, 150,000 Egyptian pounds (US$8,479), for reporting on election irregularities, according to the daily and other media reports.
Egyptian authorities blocked the Masr al-Arabia website in May 2017, but is accessible through virtual private networks (VPNs), CPJ reported at the time. Authorities have blocked at least 496 websites of news outlets, blogs, human rights organizations, and circumvention tools used to bypass the blocks, according to the free speech advocacy group, Association of Freedom and Thought, and the U.S.-based Open Observatory of Network Interference. One of the blocked websites, the independent news website Mada Masr, reported yesterday that its appeal of the ban is scheduled for May 13 at the Court of Administrative Justice.