Dozens of news sites blocked as Egypt ramps up digital censorship

The Egyptian authorities have shifted their onslaught against media freedom to the digital sphere, blocking access to more than 40 news sites without justification in recent weeks, in an attempt to eliminate the country’s last remaining spaces for criticism and free expression, said Amnesty International.

At least 63 websites have been blocked in total since 24 May according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, including 48 news sites. Mada Masr, an independent news site which regularly published news and analysis deeply critical of the authorities was among the first to be blocked. Most recently on 11 June the Egyptian news sites Albedaiah, run by independent journalist Khaled al Balshy, Elbadil and Bawabit Yanair were blocked. Access to the global online publishing platform Medium was also cut off on 10 June.  

“The latest clampdown on digital media is further evidence of Egypt’s age-old police state tactics in motion. Even in the darkest days of the repressive Mubarak era the authorities didn’t cut off access to all independent news sites,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns director.

“With this move the Egyptian authorities seem to be targeting the few remaining spaces for free expression in the country. It shows just how determined the authorities are to prevent Egyptians from accessing independent reporting, analysis and opinion about Egypt. The authorities must immediately stop arbitrarily blocking news websites.”

With this move the Egyptian authorities seem to be targeting the few remaining spaces for free expression in the country

Najia Bounaim, Campaigns Director for North Africa at Amnesty International

On 24 May, state media announced that Egyptian authorities had blocked a group of websitesincluding the prominent independent news platforms Mada Masr, Daily News Egypt, Elborsa and Masr Al Arabia. The authorities failed to provide any evidence of illegal activity or to clarify the legal basis for the decision. Instead officials made vague statements to the media saying this was in connection with “publishing false information” and “supporting terrorism”.

On 25 May, Egyptian newspapers published reports citing a “sovereign agency” (a term usually used to refer to Egyptian intelligence agencies) justifying the move on the grounds of “combating terrorism” and accusing Qatar of supporting some of the blocked websites, again without providing evidence.

Amnesty International has reviewed the list of blocked websites. The majority are news sites but the list also includes sites where VPN and TOR, which can be used to access blocked sites, can be downloaded. Amnesty International was able to identify only one website connected to groups that use or advocate violence.

Many of the sites that have been blocked had served as a refuge for Egypt’s remaining critical voices who no longer are allowed to appear on TV or in the print media, which have been firmly in the grip of the state since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power.

The independent news and analysis website Mada Masr is known for unflinchingly exposing human rights violations committed by the Egyptian authorities in recent years, including arbitrary detention, unfair trials, the crackdown on human rights NGOs, extrajudicial executions and the use of the death penalty.

The site’s editor-in-chief, Lina Attallah, told Amnesty International that she believes the site was blocked because it publishes well-researched investigations based on verified information.  “We publish what authorities don’t want people to read,” she said.

“The Egyptian government appears to be exploiting recent violent attacks by armed groups in the country to crack down on the remaining free space and silence critical voices. Once again the authorities are using national security grounds to justify outright repression,” said Najia Bounaim.

“Instead of attacking critical and independent voices Egypt should respect the obligations enshrined in its own constitution and in international law not to impose arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and to protect the right of everyone to seek, receive and share information.”

Once again the authorities are using national security grounds to justify outright repression

Najia Bounaim, Campaigns Director for North Africa at Amnesty International

The government’s decision to block these websites also flouts Egypt’s constitution, which prohibits censorship of the media, except at times of war and military mobilization, and protects freedom of expression and press freedom both in print and digital formats. The constitution also upholds the right of all citizens to use telecommunication tools and methods.

The legal grounds and authority the government has used to block these sites is ambiguous and it remains unclear whether emergency law provisions were applied. There are, however, a number of Egyptian laws that can be used to censor the media and the internet, on the grounds of national security.

After the bombing of two churches in Tanta and Alexandria in April 2017, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency. An hour later, the authorities confiscated that day’s edition of Albawaba newspaper, which demanded that the Minister of Interior be held accountable for failing to prevent the bombing.

Under emergency laws, the authorities have broad powers to impose surveillance and censorship on media. On 10 April, the head of the Egyptian parliament, Dr Ali Abdel’al announced that these laws will extend to social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. He added that these platforms were being used as means of communication between “terrorists” and warned that online offenders would face prosecution. 

The vaguely worded articles of Egypt’s counterterrorism law also allow punishments of up to 15 years in prison for establishing a website for the purpose of promoting “terrorist ideas” and grant the authorities the power to block websites suspected of promoting “terrorism”.

Two of the blocked websites, Daily News Egypt and Elborsa, belong to the Business News Company, which is licensed by the government. In November 2016, the government froze the company’s assets under the pretext that it belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, without providing evidence to support this claim. The paper’s 230 staff have not received their salaries since.

Representatives of many of the websites affected have filed complaints with the Press Syndicate, the National Council for Media, the Ministry Communications and the Public Prosecutor, but so far received no response. Mada Masr has filed an appeal against the decision to block its website before an administrative court, but it has not yet heard the appeal.