Amr Abdallay Dalsh/Reuters/Landov

Stating security concerns, Egypt gags media

Analysis: Censorship, political charges and non-press laws are used by the government to stifle the media

Swept up in the media crackdown, Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed spent over a year in a Cairo prison on charges they reported "false news." Though Greste has been released, Baher and Fahmy are only free on bail and awaiting a resolution to their case.
Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

CAIRO, Egypt — Mohamed Abo Zeid is out of words and hope.

His brother Mahmoud, a photojournalist, has become one of several names symbolizing perils facing journalists in Egypt. Mahmoud’s more than 600-days of captivity without trial or charges has left his family with nothing but despair and bitterness.

"It's been nearly two years and not a single development in the case — just a series of orders extending his incarceration,” Mohamed said. “No one knows why he's in jail. Not us. Not even the prosecutors."

The case of Mahmoud, who goes by the name Shawkan, is among countless examples of how authorities in Egypt are using what they call a “war on terrorism” as a pretext to stifle dissent, taking punitive measures against journalists who stray from the government’s narrative.

Journalists risk becoming prisoners of conscience — and then, generally, suspects — as they get entangled in a complex political web in a volatile security situation, where frequent attacks have resulted in hundreds of deaths since 2013. In the restive eastern Sinai Peninsula, the army is engaged in a months-long campaign against armed fighters.

"Most journalists rot in jail because they exercised their right to inform the public, and they were only doing their job," said Lucie Morillon, program director at Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

Shawkan, 27, was arrested on Aug. 14, 2013 while documenting the government’s dispersal of the Rabaa Square Vigil, during which hundreds of people calling for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were killed.

The young journalist now stands accused of 11 charges including rioting, possessing weapons, inciting violence and joining Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood organization, which the government now deems a terrorist group.

'Worse than ever'

While Egypt has a long history of targeting journalists, it has reached unprecedented levels in recent years.

Egypt, which has changed regimes twice in the past four years, was ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as the world's third-deadliest country for journalists in 2013, and the world's sixth-worst jailer of journalists in 2014. According to RWB, Egypt was fifth-worst in jailing reporters in 2014.

"The situation is worse than it has ever been — worse than the era of Hosni Mubarak, worse than the time of Morsi," said Sherif Mansour, Middle East North Africa Coordinator at CPJ. "Authorities go after anyone with a political opinion that is independent from the government's line." Mubarak, Egypt’s president for three decades, stepped down amid massive protests in 2011.

On April 11 this year, an Egyptian court sentenced three journalists to life in prison. Abdullah al-Fakarany and Samhi Mustafa of the Rassd news website and Mohamed Adly of Amgad TV had been arrested two weeks after Shawkan, and were found guilty of “spreading chaos and false information,” as well as running an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood.

The following day, journalist Hussien Abdel Halim of privately owned newspaper Dostour was arrested for alleged involvement in theft, bribery and drugs.

The timing of his arrest — shortly after he wrote several pieces accusing police of a myriad of violations — lead many to conclude that his detainment is politically motivated.

Widespread censorship

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013, his government has shut down and revoked the licenses of several television stations aligned with the opposition. It has also imposed direct and indirect censorship on media hosts and content, and has used laws unrelated to the media to crack down on journalists.

"Satirist Bassem Youssef and columnist Belal Fadl are among the most prominent media figures to have been targeted," said Mansour. Both men have since left Egypt and are denied a platform in domestic media.

According to CPJ figures, 10 journalists have been killed since the 2011 revolution, six of them in 2013 while reporting on protests staged by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At least nine reporters remain behind bars as of December, according to CPJ, while RWB estimates there to be no less than 15 journalists in Egyptian prisons. Officials at Egypt's Press Syndicate put the figure at a minimum of 18, including nine of its own members.

"Even those aligned with the government were not spared," Mansour said.

Egypt's largest-selling private newspaper, Al Watan, was forced on March 11 to strike a banner headline from its front page accusing the country's presidency, spy agency and ministries of defense and interior of evading taxes, costing the state a total $1.04 billion. The headline was in the paper's first edition, but subsequent editions saw it changed to one focused on economic development.

The piece would have contradicted the newspaper’s generally pro-regime views, and would have gone against a declaration signed in October by its editor-in-chief, Magdy al-Galad, along with 16 of his colleagues, promising to end all criticism of the army, judiciary and police.

Ibrahim Eissa, a journalist and staunch supporter of Egypt’s 2013 military takeover and crackdown on dissent, had his show suspended in April — three weeks after its launch on Saudi-owned channel MBC Masr, which is broadcast from Egypt and targets a local audience.

Though the channel cited "low quality of production" and "unsuitable content" as reasons behind the decision, the move came shortly after Eissa stirred ire by criticizing Saudi Arabia — Egypt's key aid provider — along with Saudi rulers and the kingdom’s involvement in the war in Yemen.

The plug was also pulled on Eslam el-Behairy’s show in April, after the noted Islamic researcher questioned the credibility of highly praised Islamic scholars in Egypt.

Egypt-based Al-Azhar, one of the world's most prestigious centers of Sunni Islam, accused him of making "detrimental remarks on the fundamentals of religion," spreading doubt about "indisputable facts" of Islam, and "misleading young people."

Needed: Laws protecting media

Some Egyptian journalists have fought back against censorship, demanding that the state ceases harassment of reporters and photographers.
Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

Sisi has repeatedly insisted that Egyptian media is independent. In an interview with London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat he said media freedom increased following the 2011 revolution.

However, leaked audio recordings of instructions allegedly given by the head of his office on how personnel should sway public opinion cast a shadow on how independent Egypt's media really is.

"Since Mubarak stepped down in 2011, authorities have tried to maintain a certain control over the information and media in general, even though we were hoping for an improvement regarding fundamental freedoms," RWB's Morillon said.

Yehia Qallash, the newly elected head of Egypt’s Press Syndicate, blamed the "tough times" faced by Egypt's media on the security situation and the absence of a legislative body.

Accusing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of being "press freedom's worst enemies," Qallash said the group "continued to threaten Egypt's security through protests and bombings, leading to liberties being overpowered by security measures."

Qallash said a parliament needs to be in place to bring about legislative amendments that reflect new liberties guaranteed in the constitution of 2014, including the cancellation of jail sentences as punishment for press-related crimes.

But Mansour argues that Sisi, who enjoys legislative powers amid the absence of a parliament, has issued several decrees and could have taken necessary measures to reflect such positive constitutional changes.

"This is the true test before the regime: to abolish 70 articles in eight different laws allowing sentencing of journalists with jail terms. Neither Mubarak nor Morsi did it, and it's the real test before Sisi," Mansour said.

According to Mansour and Morillon, the first signs of goodwill would be the immediate release of all arbitrarily held journalists, and the immediate drop of charges against Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who were sentenced to seven and 10 years respectively, on charges of joining the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite their release on bail in February, the Al Jazeera journalists' cases are being retried.

Qallash, whose union began to attend trials and investigations of non-member journalists only after his election, has vowed to secure more protection for journalists and photojournalists "whose cameras sometimes made them the target of [the] security apparatus."

"Our priority now is to free journalists who were never given a chance to defend themselves," Qallash said.

He was referring to cases like that of Shawkan, who on his 600th day in prison wrote a letter in which he described the jail as a "cemetery."

"I am a photojournalist, not a criminal," Shawkan wrote. "I'm neither supporting nor opposing anyone; all I care about is my job. Why are they leaving me here with no logical reason?"

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter