Egypt Blocks Access to News Websites, Raising Press Freedom Concerns

Human rights and press freedom organizations have turned their attention to Egypt after the country’s authorities blocked access to 21 news websites last month.

Following the May 24 incident, Access Now and the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, two global press freedom organizations, sent out a joint letter to Egyptian authorities condemning the action and urging them to reopen access to the websites.

As members of civil society working for the free flow of information and digital access and freedom, we strongly condemn blocking access to these 21 websites by the country’s authorities,” the statement read. “Such action is an act of censorship and infringement on the freedom of expression and information. Independent media must not pay the price of current political disputes between countries in the region—such as that between Egypt and Qatar.”

According to the Associated Press, the website blackout came after Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates blocked access to websites run by the Qatari-funded network Al-Jazeera following an alleged hacking of the agency and a fake news report.

Qatar has experienced growing tensions with other countries in the region following concerns of the country’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist group considered a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Syria, according to NPR.  

Egypt itself has also experienced tension with Qatar since the country’s backing of former Egyptian President and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Morsi in 2013, according to The Guardian. After Morsi was ousted, many journalists from the Qatari-backed Al-Jazeera were arrested.

In addition to Al-Jazeera, Egypt also blocked access to HuffPost Arabi and independent news site Mada Masar, a publication credited with exposing corruption and regarded as critical of the Egyptian government, according to Voice of America. The two publications have turned to their social media sites to communicate with their readers.

The Guardian states that the full list of sites blocked has not been released, but the state-run news agency Mena declared that 21 news websites were blocked for “spreading lies” and “supporting terrorism.” Mena also stated that legal action will be taken against the news websites in the near future.

Responding to Egyptian authorities, Access Now and SKeyes said in their joint statement that since Egypt has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the country should only limit free speech if the restrictions are “strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose.” After concluding that the measures taken by Egyptian authorities violated the treaty, the organizations called upon the Egyptian government to restore access to the banned news websites.

Nineteen other human rights and press freedom organizations signed the statement, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour stated that while Egypt is usually characterized by low levels of press freedom, the blocking of these websites is particularly troubling.

“Broad censorship of news websites represents a new low in Egypt’s lamentable record on press freedom,” Mansour said in a CPJ article. “Egyptian authorities should cease blocking news websites and should allow the media to do its job unimpeded.”

While the 2011 Arab Spring Revolution was known for its use of citizen journalism, conditions for journalists have grown worse in Egypt since then. Egypt currently ranks 161 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, and its press is labeled as “not free” by Freedom House.

Egypt’s constitution, adopted in 2014, states that freedom of thought, opinion and expression are granted to its citizens and that all forms of media censorship, including the suspension and closure of outlets, should be banned.

However, the constitution also states that media censorship is allowed “in times of war or general mobilization,” and journalists can be imprisoned for crimes related to the incitement of violence, discrimination and defamation. A recent counterterrorism law also bans the dissemination of material that contradicts accounts of military attacks by the Defense Ministry.

As a result of these limitations and the government crackdown on journalists under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime, Egypt was ranked the second-worst jailer of journalists in 2015 according to the CPJ’s prison census from that year.

Recent regime actions in Egypt show a developing trend of media suppression and endangerment to journalists, especially in today’s tenuous political circumstances in the region.

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