A banner depicting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is seen outside a polling station, during the referendum on draft constitutional amendments, in Cairo, Egypt, on April 20, 2019. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
A banner depicting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is seen outside a polling station, during the referendum on draft constitutional amendments, in Cairo, Egypt, on April 20, 2019. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt tests new censorship law with handling of al-Mashhad website block

Magdy Shandi, editor-in-chief of the Cairo-based independent newspaper al-Mashhad, planned to send 30 journalists to report from polling stations while votes were being cast in Egypt’s constitutional referendum between April 20 and April 22. He ended up ordering them to stay away, he told CPJ in a telephone interview in May. The state’s media regulator used a new law to block al-Mashhad’s website at the height of the referendum campaign, leaving the outlet in uncharted territory as it mounted an appeal, according to Shandi and news reports.

The constitutional amendments proposed in the referendum increase the president’s control over the judiciary and the military’s role in political affairs, and extend President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s eligibility for office until 2030, according to news reports. His final term would otherwise have concluded in 2022, the reports said. On April 23, election officials announced that voters had approved the amendments by a 90% majority, according to news reports.

Ahead of the referendum, a ubiquitous advertising campaign encouraged Egyptians to “do the right thing,” often with a green checkmark and an image of el-Sisi to illustrate that this meant voting “yes,” The New York Times reported. News reports said “no” campaigns were notably absent in comparison. On April 9, thousands of web pages run by technology companies, religious groups, non-governmental organizations, and others, were suddenly unavailable in Egypt, apparently collateral damage from the latest government censorship order, according to NetBlocks, an independent, international censorship watchdog group. The blocked sites all shared a hosting service with an online petition against amending the constitution, NetBlocks reported. The petition, Batel (“void”), registered tens of thousands of “no” votes before it was blocked hours after its launch, according to Human Rights Watch.

Al-Mashhad had published a March 18 investigation that alleged police were helping secure food packages to offer in exchange for votes, among other reports about the referendum, according to the local investigative news website Mada Masr. But on March 22 the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), a regulatory body that operates under el-Sisi, fined al-Mashhad 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,909) and said Egyptian internet service providers would block the paper’s website for six months, according to news reports and local human rights group Egyptian Observatory for Journalism and Media.

Websites run by local news outlets have been subject to blocking in Egypt since 2017, according to CPJ reporting and local press freedom groups. The government imposed a three-month state of emergency shortly after the bombing of a Cairo church, and 21 news websites–including Mada Masr–were subsequently blocked for what an official news agency described as spreading “false news” and extremism, CPJ reported in May of that year. Today, that state of emergency is ongoing; el-Sisi last extended it for another three months on April 25, according to local news reports. In ongoing tests conducted by the Egyptian human rights group Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), 103 websites that the group categorizes under “press and media” are consistently inaccessible in Egypt; at least five have ceased operation as a result, AFTE reports. Dozens of virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies, tools that help people bypass internet censorship, are also subject to frequent blocking, AFTE reports.

No government agency or internet service provider has confirmed these blocks, according to AFTE, and two news outlets CPJ contacted in 2017 said they received no notification when their sites were taken offline. Mohamed Salah, a researcher at the local press freedom group Egyptian Observatory for Journalism and Media, told CPJ by phone that it has not generally been possible to know which agency ordered a site to be blocked in the past because of the lack of written notices.

In March, however, the independent local newspaper al-Masry al-Youm newspaper published a copy of SCMR’s letter to al-Mashhad detailing the block and the fine. It was the SCMR’s first use of new penalties under a recent media law, al-Masry al-Youm reported. President el-Sisi signed Law No. 180 of 2018 last August after parliament approved it, according to news reports. The broad law bans spreading false news, defamation, pornography and content the SCMR deems threatening to national security, the reports said. On March 18, the SCMR issued a bylaw announcing that news outlets it finds in violation of Law No. 180 would see their websites temporarily or indefinitely blocked, and face fines of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,555), according to Mada Masr. The law, a copy of which was published by local news outlets, applies to all online and offline media outlets, as well as social media accounts with more than 5000 followers.

In its letter, the SCMR accused al-Mashhad of defaming two actresses through publication of pornographic images. News reports about the sanction connected it with a widely-reported scandal involving filmmaker and parliamentarian Khaled Youssef. Youssef, a member of the opposition Free Egyptians Party, was one of a small group of politicians who publicly opposed changing the constitution before the referendum, according to the Middle East Eye news website. In a March 11 article, al-Mashhad quoted comments Youssef made to the BBC that accused his opponents of trying to discredit him by alleging he had appeared in sexually explicit videos with actresses.

But Magdy Shandi told CPJ that he does not know which images or reports from al-Mashhad could be considered pornographic, and the SCMR did not respond when he asked for clarification. The SCMR did not respond to CPJ’s email request for comment.

The SCMR’s letter made it possible for al-Mashhad to appeal the decision in an administrative court in Cairo on March 24, Shandi said. No SCMR representative attended, but on April 7 the SCMR reduced the duration of the website block from six months to one month, starting from the appeal date, according to Shandi. It was now due to expire on April 24, the day after the referendum results were announced.

Al-Mashhad continued reporting on the referendum and distributing its print edition, but soon encountered another obstacle, Shandi said. To enter polling stations, journalists require permits from the National Elections Authority, which failed to issue any until late on April 19, just hours before voting began, according to the National Syndicate of Journalists. The Authority had approved press permits for 30 al-Mashhad journalists, but never issued them, according to Shandi. The Syndicate and the Egyptian Observatory for Journalism and Media separately reported complaints from other journalists who were unable to obtain a permit.

Shandi knew al-Mashhad staff still had the right to report in the vicinity of polling stations, even without accreditation. But other journalists reported obstructive authorities confiscating cameras or ordering them to erase material, according to the Observatory.

“I was stopped in front of three different stations for taking pictures and talking to voters,” a journalist with al-Masry al-Youm who obtained an official press permit told CPJ by phone. “These polls did not have a big turnout, and it felt like authorities did not want this part covered in the media.” The journalist requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation. Security officials at three out of the eight polling stations she visited refused to let her enter, demanding an additional security permit, she said. A second local print journalist, who also requested anonymity, told CPJ that officials at half the polling stations they visited refused to recognize the official press permit.

Magdy Shandi ultimately told al-Mashhad journalists to avoid polling stations altogether, rather than take their chances with authorities who appeared to be targeting the newspaper, he told CPJ.

So far, however, there is little sign that pressure on the paper is lifting; despite the partial success that appeared to result from the appeal, al-Mashhad was still inaccessible in Egypt as of May 7, according to Shandi.

“Like most blocked news websites in Egypt, al-Mashhad has to rely on using VPNs and proxies to continue operating, which is very challenging as they are always subject to blocks.” Shandi told CPJ. “Al-Mashhad is not even an anti-government newspaper,” he said. “It is simply practicing its constitutional right to objectively cover the news.”