As elec­tions near, Egypt finds a new tar­get: for­eign news me­dia

Sunday Trust - - FOREIGN FEATURE - Source: https://www.ny­times. com

Egypt’s chief pros­e­cu­tor de­liv­ered a with­er­ing broad­side against the news me­dia on Wed­nes­day, blam­ing the “forces of evil” for neg­a­tive cov­er­age and in­struct­ing his staff to take le­gal ac­tion against out­lets deemed to be undermining Egypt’s se­cu­rity.

The re­marks by the pros­e­cu­tor, Na­bil Sadek, were the lat­est es­ca­la­tion of a dra­co­nian crack­down on civil lib­er­ties be­fore a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in March that has be­come fraught with ten­sion even though Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi faces no real op­po­si­tion.

In com­ments that ap­peared aimed at the for­eign news me­dia, Mr. Sadek ac­cused out­lets of spread­ing false news “to dis­turb the pub­lic order and ter­ror­ize so­ci­ety.” A day ear­lier, Egypt had called for a boycott of the BBC over a doc­u­men­tary that aired last week de­tail­ing tor­ture and il­le­gal ab­duc­tions by Egyp­tian se­cu­rity forces.

Lo­cal news cov­er­age has been dom­i­nated in re­cent days by a wave of gov­ern­ment-driven out­rage over the doc­u­men­tary. Al­though the doc­u­men­tary con­tained abuse ac­cu­sa­tions al­ready widely doc­u­mented by hu­man rights groups, it was de­nounced as pro­pa­ganda spread by the out­lawed Mus­lim Brother­hood.

The State In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice, which over­sees the for­eign me­dia, said the BBC film was in­ac­cu­rate be­cause a young woman fea­tured in the doc­u­men­tary later told a lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tion that she had not been harmed.

Her mother said on Tues­day that the woman had been co­erced into giv­ing a false state­ment to the lo­cal sta­tion. A day later, the mother was re­ported to have been ar­rested.

The BBC said in a state­ment: “We stand by the in­tegrity of our re­port­ing teams.”

While Mr. Sisi has long treated Egyp­tian news out­lets harshly, jail­ing dozens of reporters and block­ing about 500 web­sites, he has gen­er­ally spared for­eign reporters the worst mea­sures. That ap­pears to have changed with the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign.

A long list of rules an­nounced by the na­tional elec­tion com­mis­sion in Fe­bru­ary seeks to dic­tate the ques­tions jour­nal­ists can ask vot­ers, pro­hibits them from us­ing pho­to­graphs or head­lines “not re­lated to the topic” and for­bids them from mak­ing “any ob­ser­va­tions about the vot­ing process.”

“These rules made me laugh, and scared the hell out of me at the same time,” said Ga­mal Eid, a lead­ing lawyer and hu­man rights activist. “The rules are pur­pose­fully vague so they can de­cide to let their friends go, and pun­ish their crit­ics. It seems tailor-made for the for­eign me­dia.”

Al­though the pres­i­den­tial vote, sched­uled for March 26-28, is widely seen as a cha­rade - Mr. Sisi’s sole op­po­nent is an ob­scure politi­cian who un­til re­cently backed him - the gov­ern­ment has given no quar­ter to po­ten­tial ri­vals.

Four se­ri­ous candidates who might have chal­lenged Mr. Sisi were side­lined, jailed or threat­ened with pros­e­cu­tion be­fore they could even get on the bal­lot, and on Feb. 14 the au­thor­i­ties ar­rested Ab­del Moneim Aboul Fo­touh, an op­po­si­tion leader who con­tested the 2012 elec­tion but is not run­ning this time.

Mr. Fo­touh, 66, who pub­licly sup­ported calls for an elec­tion boycott, now faces charges of con­spir­ing to in­cite re­volt and has been placed on a list of “ter­ror­ists” linked to the Mus­lim Brother­hood. A long list of rules an­nounced by the na­tional elec­tion com­mis­sion in Fe­bru­ary seeks to dic­tate the ques­tions jour­nal­ists can ask vot­ers, pro­hibits them from us­ing pho­to­graphs or head­lines “not re­lated to the topic” and for­bids them from mak­ing “any ob­ser­va­tions about the vot­ing process

Last week, 14 in­ter­na­tional and Egyp­tian rights or­ga­ni­za­tions urged Mr. Sisi’s Amer­i­can and Euro­pean al­lies to pub­licly de­nounce the “far­ci­cal elec­tions,” but that seems un­likely. Once hailed as a “fan­tas­tic guy” by Pres­i­dent Trump, Mr. Sisi has avoided cen­sure from al­lies who see him as a staunch ally in a re­gion awash with Is­lamist vi­o­lence and po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence. Sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries have ne­go­ti­ated large arms and en­ergy deals with Egypt in the past year.

Jour­nal­ists have been reg­u­larly de­tained and pros­e­cuted un­der Mr. Sisi - Reporters With­out Borders ranked Egypt 161st out of 180 coun­tries in its 2017 Press Free­dom In­dex - but the pace of ar­rests has quick­ened in re­cent weeks.

The New York-based Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists said it was con­cerned about Moataz Wad­nan, a re­porter with Huf­fPost Arabi, who was de­tained on Feb. 16 af­ter he pub­lished an in­ter­view with a prom­i­nent Sisi critic. On Feb. 4, the jour­nal­ists Moustafa el-Asar and Has­san el-Banna were de­tained on their way to work.

Since May 2017, Egypt has blocked about 500 news web­sites, in­clud­ing Huf­fPost Arabi and the coun­try’s few re­main­ing in­de­pen­dent news web­sites.

Even one of Egypt’s best-loved en­ter­tain­ers has be­come a ca­su­alty of the re­lent­less as­sault on free speech. On Tues­day a court sen­tenced the pop star Sher­ine to six months in prison over com­ments she made that were in­ter­preted as an in­sult to the state when she sug­gested that the Nile River was dirty. The ver­dict was not fi­nal, and the singer is free on bail pend­ing an ap­peal.

Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi

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