Last year, 19 journalists were jailed on “false news” charges in Egypt, and more than 30 journalists are currently believed to be behind bars.
But while the International Press Institute (IPI) continues to press for their release, the Egyptian government under President Fattah el-Sisi is constructing a powerful legal framework to support its crackdown on media freedom. In April 2019, a constitutional amendment was passed in Egypt granting Sisi power over the judiciary and the right to remain in power until 2030.
The amendment paves a clear path to strengthen his government’s restrictions on the rights of journalists. It appoints Sisi as chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council and gives him control over appointments to the courts. This modification extinguishes the illusion of separation of powers in Egypt. “Egyptian courts have lost all independence and officially become an extension of governmental authority”, Abdelfattah Fayed, Al Jazeera’s editor of Egyptian affairs and former Cairo bureau chief for the network, said in a recent interview with IPI.
He added: “The constitutional amendment will legalize all of the government’s procedures against journalists, especially regarding unfair trials.”Although this amendment appears radical, is simply legalizes the status quo. “The powers Sisi has had over the judiciary for the past six years have been legalized and constitutionalized”, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies Deputy Director Ziad Abdeltawab explained to IPI.
Nevertheless, the amendment’s approval is likely to provide the grounds for a further clampdown on free speech in Egypt. “We definitely think that we will see more and more journalists being arrested in the next year, and also more restrictions on the work of foreign journalists”, Abdeltawab warned. Shaping the legal system to entrench fear over the past few years, Sisi has unleashed a torrent of legislative change that “instrumentalizes every repressive tool” available and targets every aspect of civilian life, Abdeltawab said.
One of the most significant obstacles to independent journalism came in the form of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), an administrative board established by Sisi in 2016 with powers beyond the courts. Its lack of independence – the president appoints the board members – is alarming. In 2018, a sweeping media law gave the SCMR oversight of all media outlets, and imposed onerous licensing requirements including a registration fee of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (LE), or around 5,330 euros.
Additionally, the law gives the SCMR the power to block, suspend, ban, or impose fines of up to LE 250,000 (13,300 euros) on websites and even social media accounts that have over 5,000 followers. Since May 2017, over 500 websites have been blocked, including a six-month ban on news website al-Mashhad. The law contains vague prohibitions on “false news”, “defamation”, “advocating indecency” and “pornography”, and allows the SCMR to censor publications from overseas on grounds of “national security”.
Egyptian authorities have justified the law on the grounds of combating terrorism. The country’s top prosecutor declared in February 2018 that the state deems legal action against media outlets necessary “in light of recently observed attempts by the ‘forces of evil’ to undermine the security and safety of the country through publishing lies and fake news through different media outlets and social media”.
The dismal news for media did not end there. In September 2018, another vastly disproportionate law known as the Cybercrime Law authorized broad censorship, online surveillance, and monitoring of internet users. The Cybercrime Law was decried as unconstitutional in a statement by a coalition of national and international NGOs.
“A number of journalists set red lines for themselves as ‘self-censorship’ out of fear of persecution, especially as there are a lot of journalists behind bars because of their journalistic work”, Rawda Ahmed, a lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said. Over the past years, IPI has repeatedly called on Egypt to drop all charges against the dozens of journalists currently behind bars, including Ismail Alexandrani, who has been imprisoned without evidence or an official indictment since 2015 and Mahmoud Hussein, an Al Jazeera correspondent jailed since 2016. #PressEgypt is IPI’s campaign for their release.