UN Human Rights Council statement slams Egypt website blocks

Two UN officials issued a joint statement expressing their “grave concern” over the Egyptian government’s decision to block access to websites on Egyptian internet service providers, in what is the first public comment on the issue by one of the international organization’s bodies.

The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, and the special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aloáin, spoke out against what they described as the “ongoing assault on freedom of expression” in Egypt.

“Denying access to websites of all sorts, but especially news sites, deprives all Egyptians of basic information in the public interest,” the statement asserted. The block, enacted “without any transparency or identification of the asserted ‘lies’ or ‘terrorism,’ looks more like repression than counter-terrorism.”

Access to a number of websites, including Mada Masr, was first barred in May. According to the statement, the block was implemented without any evidence that it “meets the tests of international human rights law.” The rapporteurs added that it is subject to “extremely limited”  judicial control, and appears to be based on “overbroad counter-terrorism legislation.”

No official charges have been leveled against the blocked websites as of yet, but state news agency MENA had quoted an unidentified “security source” on the first day of the block, who said access to the websites was barred for “publishing content that supports terrorism and extremism and knowingly spreading lies.”

According to a report issued by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the number of websites blocked in Egypt reached 405 on Monday after 261 websites for VPN and proxy services, which could allow users inside Egypt to circumvent the block, were added to the list.

Several blogs were among the most recently blocked websites, including Manal and Alaa and Baheyya, two of Egypt’s oldest blog sites, joining the blog of journalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada, which was blocked earlier in August, along with the Reporters Without Borders website, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information website and the leftist website Belahmar.

A variety of websites have been targeted by the block, including Qatari news websites such as Al Jazeera, websites affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the website of militant Egyptian group Hassm as well as the website for Palestinian political movement Hamas. In addition to Mada Masr, the block also includes news websites Al-Manassa, El-Badil, Masr Al-Arabiyya and Daily News Egypt.

Access to the websites of a number of political groups and campaigns, including the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists, was also blocked alongside the website of a popular campaign against the Tiran and Sanafir agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights issued a statement on Tuesday demanding a reassessment of the decision to prevent access to the 405 websites, demanding that blocks be implemented only when proof of a website’s affiliation with terrorist activities is provided through a judicial body, not an administrative one.

An administrative court session is scheduled for September 9, after Mada Masr filed a lawsuit against the communications and information technology minister and the head of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, contesting the decision to block access to the site.

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