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Critics: Media law shuts down speech in Egypt

Wesley Dockery
June 19, 2018

Earlier this month, Egypt's parliament passed a law to regulate media and journalists. Critics say the law could stifle journalistic expression.

A meeting of Egypt's parliament
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Activists and journalists are concerned a week after Egypt's parliament passed a law that allows President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi's government to punish press outlets and social media users for publishing "false information."

In a statement released Tuesday, the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists called the law an "assault on the Egyptian constitution" that "opens the door for the Egyptian government to dominate the press."

The law, passed on June 10, allows the government  more regulatory powers over the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the National Media Authority and the National Press Authority, three bodies that supervise public media. 

Drafted three years ago, the law also prohibits newspapers and media outlets from publishing material that "incites hatred, discrimination or violence" and anything deemed "libel and insult of Abrahamic religions or religious beliefs."

The law will subject social media accounts and blogs that have 5,000 or more followers to the same regulations that govern traditional journalists. There are 14 million Facebook users in Egypt, and about 900,000 Twitter users. If a social media page or blog publishes the wrong content, authorities could shut it down and arrest the writer.    

Read more: Prominent Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas taken from his home 

'Disastrous' for media

Journalists in Egypt have signed a statement saying that the law undermines "freedom of opinion and expression" and criminalizes "opinion holders."

Amr Badr, a member of the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists, wrote on Facebook that the law is "disastrous in every sense of the word" and "clearly against the freedom of the press." He added that the wording does not make clear what exactly authorities are trying to achieve.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi
El-Sissi has cracked down on opponents such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the pressImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/MENA

At least one international observer was willing to withhold judgment, however. "At the moment it seems the reports surrounding the law are very vague," Dina Mansour-Ille, a senior research officer at the Overseas Development Institute think tank in London, told DW. "The law hasn't been implemented yet and therefore it is too soon to know its true impact on Egypt's media."

Other monitors were more alarmed. Sophie Anmuth, who heads the Middle East desk at Reporters without Borders (RSF) in Paris, told DW that security forces have previously arrested Egyptians who criticize rights violations or call for more tolerance for LGBTQI people on social media. RSF ranks Egypt 161st of the 180 countries on its 2018 Press Freedom Index and describes it as "one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists."

"This law sets in stone practices of control over information and repression of independent media workers, journalists and citizen journalists that have already existed over the past years," Anmuth said. "What is sure is that, with or without this law, the crackdown on press freedom was already going strong. Over 30 journalists and citizen journalists in Egypt are currently not free because of suspicions related to their media," she added.

Read more: World Press Freedom Index 2018: Europe turning into crisis region for journalists