Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

Egypt to imprison journalists who report ‘false’ death tolls

In addition to new restrictions on death tolls, Egypt has asked foreign press not to describe armed groups as Islamic

Egypt intends to imprison journalists who report death tolls from acts of anti-government violence that differ from official numbers — part of a draft law that rights groups say would further criminalize journalism under President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s administration.

Under Article 33 of a proposed anti-terrorism law that has been approved by the Cabinet and could be ratified as early as this week, journalists face a minimum of two years in prison for “reporting false information on terrorist attacks that contradicts official statements,” stipulating that “intent” or “malice” needs to be proved.

Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind, who confirmed the wording to Agence France-Presse over the weekend, said the law is in response to a deadly attack in the Sinai Peninsula by an Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) last week. The Egyptian military said 21 soldiers were killed in the attack, but various media reports put the figure closer to 70. Such discrepancies undermine public “morale,” Zind said.

“The day of the attack in Sinai, some sites published 17, then 25, then 40, then 100 dead,” he said. “There was no choice to impose some standards. The government has the duty to defend citizens from wrong information.”

Critics have framed the new law as the latest in a series of steps Sisi has taken to marginalize civil society groups and the press since he seized power in a military-backed uprising in 2013 against the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Alongside a parallel crackdown on the Brotherhood, Sisi has arrested and charged dozens of journalists who criticized his strong-fisted rule with terrorism and other crimes. Three Al Jazeera reporters, all out on bail, are facing trials for their reporting on Egypt's turmoil, and at least 18 other journalists remain in jail.

Pre-empting the public’s inevitable outrage over the law, Zind added, “I hope no one interprets this as a restriction on media freedoms. It’s just about numbers … If the army says 10 died, don’t report 20.”

Separately over the weekend, the government issued a new English-language guide for foreign journalists operating in the country on the terminology to use when describing various armed groups active in Egypt — including Wilayat Sinai, the ISIL affiliate that carried out last week’s attack. According to a screen shot of the memo posted to Twitter by CBS News correspondent Alex Ortiz, reporters are asked to refrain from using terminology that implies the Islamic affiliation of such groups, including "Islamist," "jihadist" and "fundamentalist."

“Terminologies that are religious based or faith oriented carry in its fold negative connotations which are largely based on heinous stereotypes and ill-informed predispositions,” the memo reads. “These terminologies tarnish the image of Islam as it falsely attaches the horrendous acts of these extremist groups to the Islamic faith.” It then offers a list of terms journalists should use to describe such groups: “terrorists, extremists, criminals, savages, murderers, killer, radicals, fanatics, rebels, slaughterer, executioner, assassins, slayers, destroyers, eradicators.”

Many Arab and Western governments around the globe have issued similar pleas to the media, arguing that calling ISIL Islamic legitimizes its narrative about defending Sunni Muslims from “infidel” dictators in places like Egypt and Syria. Last year the U.K., which has seen hundreds of its citizens travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIL’s fight, asked the BBC to stop calling the group the Islamic State. Like most news outlets, the BBC refused, citing journalistic freedom and a preference to refer to subjects by their desired name.

But policing language has a different meaning in the context of Egypt, where Sisi is increasingly wary about support for ISIL among disaffected Sinai residents. Critics note that Sisi has deployed similar language in his anti-Brotherhood rhetoric too, conflating the transnational organization — his main political opposition in Egypt — with Wilayat Sinai as a single “terrorist” entity. Brotherhood leaders, who have called for an uprising against Sisi but typically avoid explicit endorsement of violence, vehemently deny any affiliation.

Rights groups fear that contesting such narratives will effectively be made criminal acts under Sisi’s rule, which they say increasingly resembles Hosni Mubarak's decades-long dictatorship — or worse.

“We are faced with an article that pushed the media towards Goebbels’ media — the media of one opinion and one narrative,” Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information told The Guardian on Monday. “It is against the freedom of press, especially press that is critical and professional.”

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