‘Al-Ahaly’ confiscation reads dark times for Egypt’s press

The repeated confiscation of Al-Ahaly newspaper has raised complaints about press freedom in Egypt, where state oversight of the media is a long and opaque tradition.

A wave of anger swept journalists and rights groups in Egypt after copies of Al-Ahaly newspaper were confiscated for the third week in a row, according to a report by Ahmed Youness in Al-Monitor.

The Egyptian National Progressive Unionist Party, which owns the newspaper, condemned the incident and questioned its recurrence. The party called the move an egregious act of meddling intended to control the editorial content of the newspaper.

According to the statement, a censorship officer from the Egyptian National Security Agency who is stationed at the paper’s publishing house to monitor its work warned the paper that the issue would be blocked if the content were not changed. The May 29 issue included the names of convicts who were released in a presidential pardon. The newspaper’s editorial board refused to omit the content and as a result, the issue was not published.

In its statement, the party asked who was behind the confiscation of the newspaper and the meddling in the journalistic work of a respected political party’s newspaper, questioning the motivations and legal basis of such censorship. It protested that the move violated the law guaranteeing freedom of expression.

The party asserted that such censorship furthers corruption and creates a negative environment for investment as well as makes it difficult to fight terrorism.

Amina al-Nakash, Al-Ahaly’s editor-in-chief, told Al-Monitor that practices like confiscating newspapers and changing editorial content are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes that banned public access to certain information. Such methods are pointless in modern times due to the internet, which allows the publication of any content, she added.

Nakash said that this is the third time the newspaper’s weekly edition has been held over topics that apparently do not please Egypt’s ruling regime.

Nakash said that the May 15 issue was blocked because it included a briefing request that parliament member Mohammad Fouad submitted regarding corruption cases and a former minister’s abuse of power. The May 22 edition was stopped over news of a potential ministerial change.

Nakash said that the most recent stoppage came after she received a phone call from an anonymous person who asked her to remove a detailed investigative report about the presidential pardoning and release of several convicts. She promised the anonymous person to discuss the matter with the editorial board and the party leadership. After they all rejected the request, the issue was blocked.

Nakash noted that she and the party leaders strongly reject censorship. She added that such meddling violates Egyptian law and the country’s constitution, which promote freedom of the press. Article 70 of the Egyptian Constitution states, “Freedom of press and printing, along with paper, visual, audio and digital distribution is guaranteed.”

According to a report released by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in February 2018, “List of Blocked Websites in Egypt,” Egypt blocked 21 websites, most of them news sites, on May 24, 2017. Since then, the Egyptian authorities have scaled up censorship activities, banning any content that goes against the government. At least 513 websites have been blocked as well as campaigns calling for reforms.

Ammar Ali Hassan, a professor of political science at the University of Cairo, recalled the days of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, when newspaper censorship was strict and censors intervened to delete editorial content that did not please the authorities. In 1953 and in the wake of the Egyptian coup d’état on July 23, 1952, the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council banned political parties. Partisan newspapers stopped publishing after political parties were disbanded.

On Nov. 11, 1976, former President Anwar Sadat issued an order allowing the return of political parties and their newspapers.

Hassan told Al-Monitor that the intimidation of the press continues. Many newspapers that were published during the monarchy like Al-Masry, Al-Wafd and Al-Balagh were banned. State newspapers like Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar remained, but under the eye of a censorship officer appointed by the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council.

He explained that Egypt’s press censorship dates back 140 years. Egypt’s first media law, issued in 1882, it included strict limitations on the freedom of the press. For instance, a journalist could not offend a senior state officer, and if the newspaper received news about an official who committed crimes such as theft or embezzlement of public funds, it could not publish the news and had to cover up as much as possible. This law was abolished in 1983 by former President Hosni Mubarak.

Hassan noted that the current situation resembles the days of the Ottoman rule, when a police force working in the sultan’s palace monitored the press, deleting any editorial content that was deemed unfit for publishing and removing any words that could incite the public like revolution, constitution or injustice.