In Egypt, blocking websites threatens the last hope for independent journalism

Kareem Raafat

June 27, 2019

The board of directors of Al-Tahrir Newspaper has announced that the website will be shut down completely within two months, after efforts to resolve the widespread blocking of websites inside Egypt has failed.

The institution said that it has tried to find out why it has been blocked and who is behind the decision. Al-Tahrir was concerned it was wasting the work of its writers, which drove it to take the decision to shut the whole website down.

Unknown body

Al-Tahrir contacted the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, Egypt’s National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, and the Minister of Communication to find out the reasons why their website had been blocked. All the official bodies emphasised that the website had not committed any violations. Al-Tahrir has said that the website is working in line with the law and the constitution and maintaining the stability of the Egyptian state. 

In addition, they communicated directly with Diaa Rashwan, the President of the Egyptian Press Syndicate, and asked him to intervene to resolve the problem and avoid the situation worsening, which would affect the interests of the journalists working for the newspaper.

The institution said that it thought the crisis is just a protracted technical slump, even they don’t know who imposed the decision or why the website has been blocked.

Although the official reason is unknown, it’s believed that the purpose is to punish the newspaper’s owner, Akram Kourtam, President of the Conservative Party and former MP, because he rejected the last constitutional amendments that legalised the President remaining in power until 2030.

Al-Tahrir website is not the first

Al-Tahrir is not the first website to be blocked inside Egypt. In 2015 Egyptian authorities blocked the website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. Then, sometime in between May 24 2017 and February 1 2018, the government blocked some 500 websites, including Mada Masr, Al-Bedaiah and El-Badeel and Ida2at. They have also blocked websites that facilitate accessing banned websites.

As in the case of Al-Tahrir, there was no official reason announced by the authorities or telecommunication companies on the decision to block the website. While the national Middle East News Agency quoted “a high-level security source” who announced the decision to block 21 websites, Al-Masry Al-Youm has published a report that said the fact that websites were blocked in other countries is a justification for them to be blocked in Egypt. Many Egyptian and foreign newspapers have tried to get details on the decision but nobody has been able to get to the truth.  

Blocking websites has become a flexible tool in the hands of unknown bodes to punish any website that deviates from the authority’s narrative. This is what happened with the well-known website Al-Masry Al-Youm, which was blocked after publishing a report during the 2018 presidential elections headlined: “The state mobilises voters on the last day of the presidential election.” It was unblocked after changes to the board of editors. 

Last April, Egyptian authorities blocked around 34,000 websites in Egypt they deemed to be affiliated to an anti-constitutional amendments campaign called “Batel.” Last May, the government blocked several film and series websites after a company affiliated with the General Intelligence launched a paid app through which people could watch TV series. 

The Judiciary suspends the case 

Mada Masr Media company, the publisher of Mada Masr website, filed a lawsuit in June 2017 demanding the National Telecom Regulatory Authority submit a duly certified copy of the decision to block their website and to detail the regulatory and technical reasons behind the blocking, and to order telecommunication service providers to remove the technical obstacles to allow the users and the company to access to the website.

The National Telecom Regulatory Author’s lawyer and the lawyer of the Ministry of Communication plea that the blocking of websites is beyond their control and that it could be the responsibility of one of the national security bodies or the SCMR. Mada Masr demanded six new defendants be added to the case, including the President, the Defence and Interior Ministers, the President of the National Security Services, the President of the Administrative Control Authority and the President of Supreme Council for Media Regulation.

The administrative court referred the case to experts in the Ministry of Justice to examine the technical issues, which could take years.