Though two Al Jazeera journalists have been pardoned recently, the Egyptian government continues to impose severe restrictions on journalists in the country
Cairo: Just before Eid, President Abdel Fata el-Sisi of Egypt issued pardons to 100 prisoners, including two Al-Jazeera journalists and some activists that had been convicted under the protest law, welcome news to them and their families. However measures against journalists and the protest law affect many who are still in Egypt’s jails and there are no signs that reform in legislation will change that any time soon.
For about two years now, Egypt has been entrenched in an extensive political crackdown that was set into motion when the then head of the army and current president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announced the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. On the evening of July 3, 2013, Sisi appeared on the airwaves with representatives from various political groups and spiritual leaders to announce that national reconciliation had failed, an interim President would take office, and that the constitution was provisionally suspended.
TV Channels go black
Roughly 30 seconds after the conclusion of the statement, a handful of channels, those strongly in favor of Morsi, went black. It was effectively the first step in the state’s expansive efforts to confront dissent, something that would not only affect Islamists but members of the media and non-Islamist opposition. The swift closure of the media outlets accentuated the government’s realization that in order to undertake its desired transition, it would be important to control the public narrative concerning policies and to ensure that criticism was as muted as possible.
Egypt has faced a tumultuous period since the coup. It faces credible and sustained terrorist threats both in the capital and throughout the rest of country. However the state has conflated these threats to security with peaceful opposition that rose after the summer of 2013 in response to the ongoing transition.
In October 2014, armed forces in Sinai saw the deadliest day of attacks in years, with 33 soldiers killed. Shortly after, Sisi issued a decree that expanded the scope of military trials for civilians. The new law, however, had a more profound affect on individuals not connected to militant groups. Over 800 civilians were retroactively referred to military tribunals under the new law, something that occurred amid ongoing university protests.
Such developments have occurred in parallel with the imprisonment of activists who had prominent roles in the revolution in 2011, including Alaa Abdel Fattah,Ahmed Douma, 6 April founder Ahmed Maher. Many others were sentenced under the protest law that was issued in November 2013, a piece of legislation that was criticized both at home and abroad for violating international standards for freedom of expression.
While the Egyptian state had never been very tolerant of street demonstrations, the new law gave it further legal protection when forcefully confronting such protests, and as part of Egypt’s “war on terrorism,” became part of the message of a government that preaches stability. A state that had cited the large anti-Morsi demonstrations on the streets on June 30 as the justification for the change in power had now effectively outlawed such gatherings from happening again.
Pressures on the press
The battle for narratives has affected the press in two different ways. Firstly, it has underscored the lack of transparency in obtaining reliable information. Secondly, it has made working in journalism in Egypt a more dangerous task, with dozens of members of the press currently detained. Earlier this summer the Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt’s imprisonment of journalists was “at an all time high.” In August, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry said that no journalists were being detained for press related charges.
However, there are many like photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who was detained without charge for two years and now faces charges that include murder, who are being detained under tenuous accusations, some terror-related. And in a trial that garnered much international attention, two Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to three years in prison for “spreading false news,” a charge that was refuted during the trial itself by an independent panel of experts who examined the reporters’ coverage.
Reporting on Egypt’s volatile Sinai peninsula, where ISIS affiliates have launched numerous attacks on Egypt’s armed forces and police, has become nearly impossible, with access severely restricted. In a counterterrorism law issued over a month ago, the government forbade journalists from publishing or promoting news concerning acts of terrorism that contradict official statements made by the Ministry of Defense.
Earlier this month when joint forces accidentally attacked a group of Mexican tourists and their Egyptian guides in the Western Desert, Shoukry promised the government would undertake a “transparent” probe to investigate what happened and who had been responsible. Shortly after, Egypt’s public prosecution issued a gag order on the investigation, banning the media from covering any details of the proceedings, aside from information officially disseminated from the prosecutor’s office. Gag orders have become commonplace for investigations into prominent cases including the assassination of the previous prosecutor general and the investigation of various activists for allegedly using foreign funding to “destabilize Egypt during the 25 January Revolution”
No criticism allowed
The Egyptian government has conveyed a high level of sensitivity towards criticism, both domestic and international. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made it a habit to regularly respond to reports by Human Rights Watch. In June, it accused HRW of “supporting the practices of terrorism…and the perpetrators of acts of violence and intimidation.” Two months later, when HRW published a report on the anniversary of the violent dispersal of Rabaa Al-Adaweya, the foreign ministry once again accused the rights group of defending terrorism, dismissing its criticism as “absurd” and “lacking credibility.”
The Egyptian state has confronted some reports by the foreign press in the same manner, specifically calling out the New York Times’ reporting and editorials. The ministry also publicly attacked a report aired by CNN about the beheading of a Croatian by ISIS affiliates, saying it portrayed an “absurdly distorted image of chaos and rampant terrorism in Egypt.”
The government has also made it a habit of publicly rejecting criticism of many of the controversial court rulings over the past two years, including the Al-Jazeera case and a number of harsh sentences handed down in mass trials, touting the independence of the judiciary.
Egypt might one day develop a more fruitful political environment, but such a change will only come about when the Egyptian state allows for honest and transparent discourse to take place and when it allows the press to publish and distribute information without the threat of hassle or imprisonment.
The writer is a Cairo-based editor and former reporter for Daily News Egypt. He is a regular contributor to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and has also written for the Atlantic Council