Assassination story: What has happened to the Egyptian press since 2013?

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“We were obsessed with media from the first day of the military council rule, so we made media organs, and every organ required a lot of time and effort.” Al-Sisi speaking in video leaks

Over the past few days, Egypt’s newspapers focused on the social media video trend of a bride addressing his to-be husband while signing the marriage contract demanding him to take care of her mother as a condition for the marriage. Wrote dozens of news stories about the bride and her husband. Interviews and complete media coverage of the story were the spotlights of the most popular media outlets and their highlights. This over-interest in personal and marginal stories trending on social media became characteristic of Egyptian journalism since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took over the power in 2014. The once severe and critical Egyptian journalism that used to headache the governments with stories over corruption, public policies and Egypt’s international relations was tamed and transformed into a social media trends journalism full of stories celebrating superstitious and odd stories.

It is not just an occurrence but the result of the systematic policy adopted by Sisi’s regime to encircle the press and deny the citizens their right to information. Deployed all legal and illegal means to achieve those targets. Journalists were prosecuted, exiled and even murdered. Independent newspapers were closed or digitally blocked, while the General Intelligence monopolized private ones after the agency compelled their owners to abandon them to the agency’s business organs. Foreign reporters were unlicensed, and complete legal structures of anti-free press laws were issued. By 2020, Accomplished the mission with Sisi’s monopoly over Egypt’s press, Egypt is slipping to the lowest world ranks regarding press freedom.

Detention, exile and murder

Since the military coup in 2013, five journalists at least were killed by the Egyptian police while performing their work covering the protests and sit-ins. No probes, however, were made over those crimes. Immediately after the coup, the journalist photographer, Ahmed Asem, was shot while covering the dispersal of the Republican Guard sit-in when the military corps attacked over 50 persons. Months later, the journalist photographer Mos’ab al-Shami was shot while covering the distribution of the anti-coup Rabaa sit-in. In parallel, dozens of journalists have been targeted with detention and surveillance since 2013. One is the journalist photographer Mohamed Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan. Shawkan was arrested during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, and then he was sentenced to 5-year imprisonment and another five years under surveillance. He is still obliged to spend 12 hours daily in the police station and banned from travelling or managing his stocks and properties because his name is involved in the terrorism lists.

One of the tragic stories was that of Abdullah al-Shamy, Al Jazeera’s correspondent, who was arrested in 2013 during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in. Al-Shamy had gone on a hunger strike for 147 days, losing tens of kilograms of weight and risking even death, before the Egyptian authorities stepped down and released him in 2014. Now, there are about 30 journalists under detention, among them the well-known researcher and journalist Ismael al-Iskandrani, who was concerned with the Sinai scene. Al-Iskandrani was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to 10-year imprisonment by a military court on charges of researching Sinai demography and the local public opinion towards the military performance there.

Another detained journalist is Tawfik Ghanem, 66 years, who was arrested in May 2021 on top of his work as the head of Anadolu Agency’s regional office in Cairo until 2015. Ghanem is charged with joining a terrorist group, a stereotyped charge used by the Egyptian journalists against the journalists. The detained journalists are suffering from further violations, such as Ahmed Sabei’, who has been denied seeing his family for over two years until now. But one of the most challenging cases is Hesham Abdel Aziz, Al Jazeera Mubasher TV journalist, who was arrested while visiting his family in Egypt in 2019. Hesham suffers from Glaucoma, which requires urgent surgery to rescue him from severe pain and serious consequences, but the Egyptian authorities have refused that for three years until now.

Most recently, the Egyptian authorities arrested Abdel Nasser Salama, the former editor-in-chief of the leading state-owned daily, Al Ahram, in July 2021. Salama had written an article on his Facebook demanding Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to step down after his many failures, topped by the failure in the negotiations regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Accordingly, dozens of journalists fled the country, mainly to Turkey and Europe. For example, journalist Basma Moustafa had to run to Germany to escape the security threats. The journalist couple, Solafa Magdy and Hossam al-Sayad, also fled to France after 2-year detention in Egypt. Nevertheless, the journalists abroad were not left. For example, Al Jazeera TV host, Ahmed Taha, was sentenced in absentia by the emergency court to 15-year imprisonment just for interviewing the Egyptian political figure Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in 2018.

The authorities also targeted the relatives of the journalists abroad to silence them. In 2018, the Egyptian National Security arrested the brother of the Egyptian opponent TV host, Mohamed Nasser. The father of the Egyptian Youtuber Abdullah Sherif also was interrogated after his son released call leaks unveiling massive financial corruption orchestrated by senior officials. The regime also targets the independent media figures abroad through its media propaganda, as in the case of BBC TV host Rasha Qandil, who was attacked repeatedly by the state-sponsored media propagandists Ahmed Mousa and Nashaat al-Deehy. The intimidation reached up to the threat of killing in case of not silent, as what happened to the state-sponsored TV host, Mohamed Al-Baz, when he incited the on-air killing of the dissident TV hosts in Turkey, Mohamed Nasser and Moataz Mattar.

Monopolizing journalism

Unequivocally, Sisi spoke about his plan to dominate the Egyptian media. Sisi’s plan climaxed when the General Intelligence used business organs to acquire most private media networks in Egypt, including CBC, Al Hayat and ON TV, and several newspapers such as Youm 7 and Al Wattan. The Intelligence also established new networks such as DMC. Moreover, the same Intelligence-affiliated company, United Media, monopolized advertisement and media, drama and cinema production through its subsidiary, Synergy.

The independent outlets that tried to keep their independent character were compelled to close after a series of threats and persecutions, such as the Masr Alarbiya news website, whose premises were attacked by the police and whose editor-in-chief, Adel Sabry, had been jailed for over two years. Another case is Al Tahrir daily, which was digitally blocked, and then his owner, Akmal Qurtam, was forced to close it. Web access blocking was the magic weapon the Egyptian regime discovered to eliminate the virtual public space journalism attempted to establish after destroying the factual one. Since 2017, the government has blocked dozens of news websites without declaring the reasons or even admitting the responsibility for subjecting the decision to the legal processes of the check. The blocked websites included Al Jazeera, Rassd, Arabi 21, Al Araby Al Jadeed and Mada Masr. Few independent websites are being left to work hard to report the facts under threat.

Even Egyptian journalism abroad was targeted. When Ankara attempted to reconcile with Cairo in 2020, the first demand of Cairo was to stop the dissident media outlets in Turkey. Turkey approved the Egyptian request and pressured the Egyptian dissident media to lower the tone of criticism, then closed Mekamellin TV, the most prominent critical voice against the Egyptian government abroad.

Legalizing persecution

Several legislations were issued against the freedom of the press in Egypt. The regime established the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, which has the right to ban publishing on any topic. The council also has the authority to license or stop the news websites. In contrast, the commission has refused to reply to the applications applied by independent news websites such as Masr Al Arabiya, Mada Masr and Al Manassa for years until now. The denial of license does not only mean illegalizing the newspaper or the website, but it also means the rejection of the journalists of the right to join the syndicate. Thousands of Egyptian journalists were denied their right to enter the journalists’ syndicate. It was a highly complex process to keep them out of the law coverage and deal with them as if they were not journalists.

On the other hand, the Egyptian authorities accused journalists and media of terrorism. In 2020, the Egyptian parliament was about to insert TV channels, Radio stations, and even social media accounts among the organizations that could be categorized as terrorist entities. Still, the amendments to terrorism law were issued without this suggestion, most probably to avoid the international criticism of such odd legislation. However, the authorities still accuse journalists of terrorism just for reporting stories about the president of the military and fine the media outlet once they published something criticizing the state policies.

Foreign press banned

In the same vein, the Egyptian regime targeted the foreign media coverage of Egyptian affairs by preventing numerous journalists from accessing Egypt and deporting others who reported stories sensitive to the regime. After the military coup, the Egyptian authorities arrested three journalists from the Al Jazeera network, including the Australian journalist Peter Greste, who was sentenced to 7 years in prison. The Australian government was shocked by the sentence, so the Egyptian authorities decided to deport the journalist to Australia after one year of detention as a condition for his release.

For example, in 2018, the Egyptian authorities arrested the correspondent of The Times, Bel Trew, after she interviewed a relative of a man who died while attempting illegal migration to Europe. Trew was driven to the airport and deported to London. The most recent story occurred last August when the government refused the Italian journalist Gaston Zama’s application to come to Egypt to prepare a photographed report about the then-detained researcher, Patrick George Zaki.

The well-known American journalist David Kirkpatrick was arrested at Cairo International Airport in February 2019 and deported back to London on top of Kirkpatrick’s reports about Egypt between 2011 and 2015, when he was the head of the New York Times office in Cairo. Kirkpatrick published a book, Into the Hands of the Soldiers, in 2018 about his work in Egypt, notably the overthrow of the late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the treatment of Obama’s US administration with the happenings then. A similar story happened in 2016 when the Egyptian authorities arrested the correspondent of La Croix and RTL radio, Remy Pigaglio, at the airport for 30 hours and deported him back to Paris. However, he was licensed to work in Egypt. Piaggio interpreted the decision resulted from that he was writing news stories unliked by the Egyptian authorities.

Given this systematic press targeting, Egypt ranks so late in several international press freedom indicators. RSF, for example, described Egypt as “one of the biggest prisons for journalists.” In May 2022, Egypt ranked 168th among 180 countries on the RSF Index of Press Freedom, descending two more than 2021. This is the worst rank Egypt has had since establishing the index in 2002. Egypt also ranked third in CPJ’s annual report on press freedoms in 2021. The report said Sisi’s regime targets any independent journalist voice aiming at revealing the facts and made journalism one of the most dangerous professions in Egypt now.