A press freedom group has called on Egyptian authorities to reverse their decision to take over a daily newspaper, a day after security forces stormed its headquarters.
Reporters Without Borders that the decision to take over al-Mesryoon was taken by a government commission charged with confiscating assets held by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group. It said the state-run daily Akhbar el-Yom has been put in charge of running al-Mesryoon.
Sophie Anmuth, RSF’s Middle East director, said Egyptian authorities “have yet again demonstrated an inability to tolerate criticism, no matter how moderate”.
“Any person or media outlet that upsets the government is now automatically accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and that is enough to be targeted,” she added.
RSF ranked Egypt 161st out of 180 countries on its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Authorities have blocked hundreds of websites as part of a heavy crackdown on dissent, while vague laws criminalize the spreading of “false news”.
At least 39 professional and non-professional journalists are currently held in Egypt in connection with their reporting, RSF said.
This month, the Egyptian parliament approved three controversial media regulation laws which could see social media users monitored under the pretext of combatting fake news, in a move journalists and rights groups say will severely curtail press freedoms.
The laws were approved by a two-thirds majority and sent to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for ratification. Under the new laws, the Supreme Council of Media, a president-appointed body, is allowed to supervise media platforms and social media accounts that have more than 5,000 followers, including personal accounts.
“The new press law that was approved seems to set in stone repressive practices that were already in place in Egypt, effectively legalizing new methods of cracking down on the freedom of information,” said Sophie Anmuth of Reporters Without Borders.
Under the new laws, journalists will have to ask permission to attend events or even interview people on the street.
“Since this new legislation goes hand in hand with a wave of arrests of journalists that openly target media workers who collaborate with opposition media, it is a clear attempt at ensuring only the official version of current affairs appear in the media,” Anmuth said.
The laws include the Law of the Organisation of Press, Media and the Supreme Council of Media, which regulates private media; the Law of the National Authority of Press, which regulates state-owned newspapers and news websites; and the Law of the National Authority of Media, which regulates state-owned TV channels and radio stations.
The Supreme Council of Media was established by al-Sisi in 2017 and has been criticised for attempting to silence journalists by referring them to disciplinary investigations.
“That power of interpretation has been a powerful legal and executive tool used to justify excessive aggressive and exceptional measures to go after journalists,” said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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 Abdel Fattah al-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.
According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, Al-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.