Censorship in Egypt: Online and offline

Freedom of expression and Egypts revolution

Freedom of expression lies at the heart of the changes that have swept Egypt over the past few years. Egypt’s protests, uprisings and revolutions have all showed that free expression was not something just for academics, journalists and artists – relatively privileged members of Egyptian society. Free expression was also for people lower down the pecking order: textile workers whose low wages are subsidizing the lives of global consumers, disabled people who have been out of a job most of their lives, street children harassed by police and passersby, women sexually harassed on streets and public transport, and even football fans.

After 25 January 2011, all of these groups took to the streets, with people from many other sections of society who had tired of decades of emergency rule. All of them wanted to speak up and speak out about the pressing questions in their lives and the kind of Egypt that they wanted.

The events of January 2011 set off more than three years of turbulence that have exposed deep polarization in Egyptian society. Freedom of expression is essential for societies such as Egypt’s that are seeking to come to terms with tumultuous changes and deep social division. And Egypt’s new constitution, adopted by popular vote this year, appears to reflect the importance of freedom of expression, which was such a powerful demand of the 2011 revolution. The 2014 constitution contained guarantees for free expression of opinions and freedom of the press, as well as a prohibition on censorship.

But the constitution does not appear to have inaugurated a period of open debate about the country’s polarized opinions. Egypt’s broadcast and print media, which play a fundamentally important role in framing the right to freedom of expression, no longer reflect the diversity of views that might be expected in a divided society. One news website editor interviewed in September 2014 put it like this: “The main problem is that all the media echoes a single voice. I’ve never seen that before. During my long years of work, the media has never been so homogeneous, it always had multiple opinions. Today, government, independent or opposition media reflect the same opinion.”

Egypt’s polarized politics can still be argued online, though. Some online journalists, citizen journalists and social media users are trying to challenge this homogenous mainstream, according to a new report from ARTICLE 19 and the Heliopolis Institute written by Mohamed El Dahshan and Rayna Stamboliyska. However, according to the report, the relatively free space of online journalism is under threat, from habits and systems of censorship of the traditional media that have survived the shock of the revolution and that are being reworked and extended online.

Censorship and self-censorship in Egypt

The homogeneity of Egyptian media is not the product of direct censorship but of a more complex system of content control. Direct censorship of the media ended in 1971, and it was replaced by a more ambivalent regime of self-censorship. Under the self-censorship regime, the government allowed political parties and private individuals to own newspapers and television channels. But private proprietors generally shared economic interests with the state and that ensured a degree of content control. And there were other ways for the state to make sure that journalists censored themselves. Members of the Journalists Syndicate are paid allowances, which helps keep controversies like torture, or the military’s dominance of the economy, out of the public eye, and splashes soporific or stupefying stories on front pages.

Broad, vaguely-worded laws criminalizing incitement, defamation and rumor-mongering can be used to threaten journalists. These laws were backed by a state of emergency which remained in force almost continuously over five decades. Throughout this long “emergency,” the authorities had extensive powers to suspend basic liberties: arbitrary detention, military trials for civilians, censorship and bans on protest.

These laws restricting freedom of expression did not require frequent enforcement. They functioned more as a framework for the state’s self-censorship regime, a way to communicate to journalists shifting “red lines” that they were not allowed to cross. Self-censorship was resilient and could be reworked in the light of new technologies and economic change. The private satellite channels set up after 2001 were controlled, in part, through proprietors’ economic relations with the state. The bloggers who began flourishing after 2004 were jailed or harassed when they covered topics like torture in detention.

Revolutionary disruption

But the 2011 revolution completely disrupted the self-censorship system. Mass public protest changed news agendas. “Red lines” around sensitive topics like the military temporarily disappeared. Many people took to Facebook or Twitter. Social media has emerged as a relatively unregulated space for free expression in Egypt, a place where tweeters and facebookers can express unrestrained hostility against either the government or opposition.

Print and broadcast journalists could produce “trending on Twitter” stories that need neither corroboration nor government approval. News websites began to offer a space for alternative voices attuned to the mood of change, hyperlinked to the uncensored and controversies of social media. And in June 2012, the state of emergency was lifted.

Self-censorship is back

Nonetheless, the government has managed to reinstate the self-censorship system. In July 2013, the military deposed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and imposed a brief state of emergency. It lifted the emergency in November 2013, and immediately adopted a Protest Law which placed broad restrictions on freedom of assembly, and gave security forces wide latitude in the use of lethal force against demonstrators. Other proposed laws on terrorism and civil association will, along with the Protest Law, routinize many of the (notionally exceptional) powers of the Emergency Law. And new laws and regulations are forcing human rights organizations to register their activities and funding to a committee of security personnel, and criminalize the acceptance of foreign funds. If they shut down, it will be harder to monitor the erosion of free expression in Egypt.

Self-censorship is back. The print and broadcast media with its bulky infrastructure and dense state links has proved the easiest to control. On October 26, Al-Wafd newspaper published a declaration from major state and private newspaper editors supporting the government’s war on terrorism and rejecting “all attempts to raise suspicion about state institutions, or to insult the military or police or judiciary.”

At the same time, self-censorship is still being resisted. Over four hundred journalists signed a counter-declaration of November 1, which described the editors’ declaration as “a victory for terrorism through the voluntary abandonment of freedom of opinion and expression.”  Egyptians are still hotly debating freedom of speech, even though news editors may try to keep these debates off page or off screen. People wanting to find out about these arguments need to look in less regulated spaces – and many go online to find them.

Freedom of expression online

News websites, social media and blogging sites still carry alternative news and analysis, given that they are more difficult to regulate than non-digital media. Egypt’s vague defamation and incitement laws apply, but are also more difficult to enforce. The government is seeking to extend its self-censorship system to news websites, which have become an increasingly important news source.

The new report from the Heliopolis Institute and ARTICLE 19 looks at the way self-censorship is being extended online. It is based on interviews with online journalists from a dozen news websites representing a wide spectrum of legal structures, size and political orientations. Some of the interviewees are from opposition websites, such as the Rassd News Network (RNN), a website linked to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist group in December 2013. Opposition websites like RNN face direct censorship. One explained, from his prison cell, how direct censorship works: “After they closed Rassd’s office and annulled our advertisement contracts, they came after us legally on criminal charges alleging the spreading of false news, which could upset public safety, and seeking to tarnish Egypt’s reputation abroad.” Websites linked to the Muslim Brotherhood face direct attack, but all journalists interviewed believed that the self-censorship system is encroaching on them to some degree, and all were aware of the “red lines”: the Muslim Brotherhood, terrorism, detainees, the military and its role in the economy, and sectarianism.

Journalists are increasingly reluctant to cover other sensitive topics, like protest, out of concern for personal safety. Five working journalists have been killed covering protests since the July 2013 military takeover. All of them have been killed during protests. “The real danger is not writing, it is being on the street,” said one interviewee. Another said that he was covering street protests much less: “Protests are much smaller and shorter. The risks to journalists are much greater than they were at the August 2013 Rabea al-Adawiya protests [when hundreds of people protesting President Morsi’s July 2013 ouster were killed in Cairo]. The November 2013 Protest Law means that you can get five years [of prison] for five minutes of protest, and being a journalist does not give you cover.”

Online journalists are particularly vulnerable because news websites are not yet legally recognized as media outlets. Thus, online journalists cannot get a press card and cannot get past a police cordon when a demonstration turns violent.

A state of emergency in all but name

Repressive new laws are shrinking the space for free expression. Proposed laws are likely to make things worse. The November 10 registration deadline for human rights organizations may blunt the sharpness of human rights monitoring in Egypt. A draft anti-terror law, circulated in the press at the end of last year, gives wide powers to the authorities to intervene in digital media, with penal provisions for people who use the internet to call for the use of violence, or “to broadcast [material] that is intended to mislead the security or judicial authorities in matters [related to] the crimes of terrorism,” and gives public prosecutors the power to shut down a website that is used for these purposes. The draft proposes to dramatically widen the scope of application of the death penalty and to undermine safeguards against torture. It looks like Egypt is heading for another long emergency, and that freedom of expression is in retreat.

Ferocious laws are one way to extend the self-censorship system from traditional to new media. The 2014 constitution called for new laws regulating media, including digital media, and has set up committees of journalists, lawyers and academics to do so. They may well be tempted by ferocity – some of the signatories of the October 26 declaration are members of the press committee. But a durable and resilient self-censorship system needs more than a multi-pronged legal attack. It needs to offer incentives for compliance too. As one interviewee stated, “If you are an opponent and express your opinions, your opportunities will shrink – it’s worse than in Mubarak's days.”

Another way to extend the self-censorship system into digital space – still relatively diverse and unregulated – is to co-opt senior figures in the biggest, most popular websites, the websites which make enough money to publicize themselves. Youm7.com, an online tabloid-style news website, was ranked fifth in Egypt and 349th in the world in November 2014, according to alexa.com, an internet traffic ranking website. Its editor was one of the signatories of the October 26 news editors’ declaration of support for the government’s war on terror, which received enthusiastic coverage on its website. Other signatories of the declaration are members of a committee charged with drafting new laws regulating the media, the establishment of which was required by the constitution.

If Egypt is successful in extending a self-censorship system to news websites, where will people express alternative, opposition, or unwelcome opinions? Other internet sites may provide a platform. Wikithawra.wordpress.com, for example, was – until recently – the source keeping the most reasonably reliable tally of protestors in prison. In May 2014, it recorded that the number of people jailed after specific protests it had covered had reached over 40,000. But wikithawra.wordpress.com has since stopped updating the number of people jailed for speaking out in public. Social media may also provide a platform – Facebook comes first in Egypt’s web traffic rankings.

The government is reportedly seeking tendering for internet surveillance software, which might eventually provide a means to extend self-censorship to this area of digital space. If Egypt is successful in coming up with a new self-censorship system that can deal flexibly and ruthlessly with the media landscape that emerged after its Arab spring, that new system may provide precedents or templates for the wider region. Egyptian bloggers and online journalists are thus playing for high stakes.