Egypt tightens grip on media with new bill

This file photo taken on March 22, 2018 shows apps for WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks on a smartphone. (AFP)
Updated 21 July 2018

Egypt tightens grip on media with new bill

  • Social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers on sites such as Twitter and Facebook will be treated as media outlets
  • The media council will supervise the law and take action against violations

CAIRO: A controversial law passed by Egypt’s Parliament on Monday classifies social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets, exposing them to the country’s harsh regulations for journalists.
Under the new law, social media users with a large following can be subject to prosecution for spreading false news or inciting crime.
The law prohibits the establishment of websites without first obtaining a license from the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, a government body with authority to legally suspend or block websites in violation of the country’s strict laws, and penalize editors with hefty fines.
Journalists are also forbidden from filming in prohibited areas, according to the new law.
While the bill stipulates that its provisions will apply to press and media organizations, Article 19 states that personal websites, blogs or social media accounts with no ties to the press are also liable to prosecution and must be licensed by the Supreme Council.
“That power of interpretation has been a powerful legal and executive tool used to justify excessive aggressive and exceptional measures to go after journalists,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Reuters this week.
The law’s vague language gives authorities even more power to control the media, he said.
Egypt has faced mounting criticism in recent years for its draconian laws regarding the press and freedom of expression, in addition to widespread human rights violations.
A 2015 counterterrorism law, enacted by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, gave the government sweeping powers over the regime’s critics under the guise of protecting the nation. The law allows prosecutors to detain suspects without judicial review, and order surveillance of suspected individuals or organizations without the need for a court order.
With a broad definition of what constitutes a terrorist act, the law creates a vague framework under which the government can arbitrarily detain citizens and implement punishments as severe as the death penalty. The law also requires journalists in Egypt to report only the official state version of any news related to national security.
In May 2017, the Egyptian government blocked about 20 websites affiliated with local and international news outlets, including independent news sites such as Mada Masr and Daily News Egypt, as well as blogs criticizing the regime.
A few months later, the government’s efforts were expanded to include sites affiliated with human rights groups and organizations. This included websites of local NGOs as well as international organizations like Human Rights Watch.
More than 500 websites are now blocked in Egypt, including VPN and proxy sites such as Tor and TunnelBear that allow Egyptians to circumvent online censorship. No official government body has claimed responsibility for blocking the websites.
According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, El-Sisi’s repressive legislation offers the government “near-absolute impunity for abuses by security forces under the pretext of fighting terrorism.”
The report goes on to explain that in addition to numerous extrajudicial killings, hundreds have been placed on terrorism lists without due process with many more civilians being sent to military trials with charges of political dissent.
“The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an independent rights group, said that as of mid-August, 378 people had disappeared over the previous 12 months and the whereabouts of at least 87 remained unknown. These numbers do not include those who were found killed after having gone missing,” the report said.
Reporters Without Borders called Egypt “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists” and said that many reporters have spent years in prison without being formally charged.
“The Internet is the only place left where independently reported news and information can circulate, but more than 400 websites have been blocked since the summer of 2017 and more people are being arrested because of their social network posts,” it said.

Turkey remains world’s worst offender against press freedom

Updated 13 December 2018

Turkey remains world’s worst offender against press freedom

  • A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists said that a near-record number of journalists around the world are behind bars for their work
  • The CPJ said there are dozens of reporters missing or kidnapped in the Middle East and North Africa

Turkey remains the world’s worst offender against press freedom, the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Thursday, with at least 68 journalists imprisoned for anti-state charges.

Turkey has previously said its crackdown is justified because of an attempted coup to overthrow the government in 2016.

The report said that a near-record number of journalists around the world are behind bars for their work, including two Reuters reporters whose imprisonment in Myanmar has drawn international criticism.

There were 251 journalists jailed for doing their jobs as of Dec. 1, the CPJ said in an annual study. For the third consecutive year, more than half are in Turkey, China and Egypt, where authorities have accused reporters of anti-governmental activities.

“It looks like a trend now,” the report’s author, Elana Beiser, said in an interview. “It looks like the new normal.”

The number of journalists imprisoned on charges of “false news” rose to 28, up from 21 last year and nine in 2016, according to the CPJ, a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes press freedom.

The report criticized U.S. President Donald Trump for frequently characterizing negative media coverage as “fake news,” a phrase that is also used by leaders against their critics in countries like the Philippines and Turkey.

In Egypt, at least 25 journalists are in prison. Authorities say this is to limit dissent are directed at militants trying to undermine the state.

Meanwhile, when asked about journalists being jailed, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “Legal measures are not taken because of these suspects’ or criminals’ professions. This is unrelated.”

The overall number of jailed journalists is down eight percent from last year’s record high of 272, the CPJ said.

The total does not take into account journalists who have disappeared or are being held by non-state actors. The CPJ said there are dozens of reporters missing or kidnapped in the Middle East and North Africa, including several held by Houthis in Yemen.

(With Reuters)