Journalist Nora Younis, editor-in-chief of the Al-Manassa news website, in Cairo, Egypt, on June 26, 2020; she was detained on cybercrime charges on June 24, and held for two days. Younis spoke to CPJ about censorship in Egypt. (Credit withheld)

Al-Manassa editor Nora Younis on censorship in Egypt

By on

This summer, Egyptian authorities raided Al-Manassa for the first time since the independent news website was established in 2016. News reports describe at least six police officers storming the outlet’s only office in Cairo, confiscating a laptop, and arresting Nora Younis, the editor-in-chief. The following day, the public prosecutor’s office charged her with multiple unfoundedcybercrime violations, she told CPJ by messaging app this month.

Journalists are routinely arrested in Egypt under national security laws, but Younis is the first  CPJ has documented facing charges under the 2018 cybercrime law. Al-Manassa is an open platform for collaborative journalism by citizens and freelancers, and the raid is one of several signs of intensifying pressure on the outlet: CPJ reported earlier this month on the arrest of freelance journalist Basma Mostafa, who contributes regularly to the website; she was released on bail on October 7 but the charges are pending, Younis told CPJ.

Al-Manassa has also been subject to censorship in Egypt since 2017, according to Younis, after a state news agency declared that the government had ordered internet service providers to block “false news.” CPJ has documented that measure, and the dozens of independent news websites affected since. But Younis said the blocking became harder to evade this year—affecting not just the website’s main URL (almanassa.net) but also previously available subdomains (such as news.almanassa.net).  

This September, Al-Manassa published the results of a collaborative investigation with Qurium, a non-profit Swedish foundation that hosts their website. Qurium said they had traced the technology interrupting access to Al-Manassa on Telecom Egypt and Orange Egypt networks to the U.S.-owned company Sandvine, which develops deep packet inspection applications for monitoring and manipulating internet traffic. Citizen Lab, a research project at the University of Toronto, independently reported in 2018 that they had detected Sandvine technology in Egypt “being used to block dozens of human rights, political, and news websites.” Citing interviews and internal company documents, Bloomberg News reported this month that Sandvine had supplied products and expertise to enable internet censorship in more than a dozen countries, including Egypt and others that censor online news.   

Younis spoke with CPJ this month about managing a censored website and the status of the charges against her. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CPJ emailed the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the state media regulatory body, to request comment regarding actions taken against Younis and Al-Manassa, but received no response. CPJ separately emailed Sandvine on October 21 to request comment on Qurium’s findings and Younis’ remarks, but received no response before publication. The company told CPJ in September that it had withdrawn a license to use its products from an institution in Belarus under terms that prohibit their use to support human rights violations, after news and other websites were censored during anti-government protests.

What made you decide to do the investigation with Qurium, and what did it reveal?

When almanassa.com was blocked in June 2017, we moved to a new domain, almanassa.net, an expensive solution that requires major technical adjustments with many third-party platforms. A year later, after our coverage of the Egyptian presidential elections, that domain name was blocked. We knew then that the blocking was done based on the full domain name, so we ended up moving to a subdomain. 

Moving to a subdomain reduces our traffic by almost 50%, and after each change we have to rebuild our readership. But it is far swifter than moving to a whole new domain and making the changes required.

Over time, and after every [piece of] important coverage Al-Manassa publishes that gets the authorities’ attention, our subdomain gets blocked and we move to another one. However, our latest subdomain was completely blocked in April 2020, and moving to a new one didn’t work. So, we did the expensive move to a new domain, almanassa.run, and moved our hosting to Qurium servers.

In August 2020, we noticed unusual, intermittent blockage of our newest domain and started getting complaints from readers who commented on our Facebook posts saying they can’t follow the links, even though the site worked for others. We also noticed a significant drop in website traffic. We needed to investigate.

The investigation revealed that internet service providers (ISP) in Egypt are using deep packet inspection to block Al-Manassa.

Did it surprise you when Qurium said that technology produced by Sandvine, a U.S.-owned company, was being used to censor news websites in Egypt?

The United States claims to support the promotion of democracy all over the world. Accordingly, I expect it to prevent its private sector from supporting dictatorships worldwide. Companies like Sandvine must be held accountable and must abide by universal values and ethics. Sandvine is making profit from repressing freedoms in Egypt by hindering access to information and thus the democratic development of a population of 100 million people.

Tell us about your arrest earlier this summer. What are the charges against you?

I was arrested on June 24 after police raided Al-Manassa’s office and confiscated a laptop running the Ubuntu operating system, claiming it has unlicensed Adobe [software] on it. This was obviously an excuse to arrest me because Adobe doesn’t [support products for] Ubuntu, and Al-Manassa owned Adobe licenses for its other computers.

I spent two nights in a police station cell and was interrogated by a public prosecutor. I was charged with “creating an account on the information network with the aim of facilitating and committing a crime punishable by law; possessing software designed and developed without licenses from the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR); infringing on the moral and financial rights of the copyright holder of an artistic work and wrongfully profiting” [through the internet or other information and communication technology].  

I was released on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$636). The case against me is still open but has not yet moved from the prosecutor to the court.

This is the first time a journalist has been charged under cybercrime law for their journalistic work. It is illegal under cybercrime law to use, without SCMR permission, open source software to commit “a crime.” To the best of our understanding, the “crime” here means publishing.

Media websites in Egypt are required under this law to obtain a license from the SCMR, which was founded in 2018, while Al-Manassa was founded in 2016. Upon the council’s call for websites to register, Al-Manassa submitted its timely application in October 2018, and have never received a response to this day.

Why do you think Al-Manassa has encountered a spate of press freedom violations recently? 

The space for freedom of expression and free press in Egypt is shrinking systematically over time. Almost all media organizations are now owned by the authorities, or by businessmen affiliated with the authorities.

Several independent media organizations have shut down over the past few years. The few remaining ones are struggling to survive by providing professional journalism due to the challenges presented by the legal framework, the difficulty of field reporting, and the overall hostile environment towards journalists.

Al-Manassa is not only a website that publishes news stories, it is also a platform that avails to citizen journalists the [opportunity to create] accounts and submit stories to editors who provide one-on-one editorial support until their stories are published. Our technology and openness are key to giving people a voice and access to information, not only as readers but as authors as well. Therefore, shrinking freedoms put Al-Manassa as an organization under pressure, and leads to the targeting of its staff and contributing journalists.