Egypt’s chief prosecutor told his staff Wednesday to closely monitor the media and take action against anything they consider to be “hurting national interests,” the latest move by authorities to suppress any dissenting voices before elections, which are seen as virtually a one-man race ensuring the re-election of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
The government has already sought to exert heavy control over reporting on the March 26-28 election, issuing guidelines barring journalists from asking who people would vote for beforehand or from conducting any polling. Authorities have also increasingly depicted criticism as a violation of national security, at a time when Egypt is trying to revive its economy battered by years of turmoil and contain an insurgency by Islamic militants.
In a brief statement, top prosecutor Nabil Sadeq said “forces of evil” — one of Sissi’s hallmark phrases — "have recently been trying to undermine the security and safety of the nation through the broadcast and publication of lies and false news.”
"Prosecutors should take legal action against media outlets that disseminate false news statements or rumors that could instill terror in society, hurt the public interest or disrupt peace. Media regulatory bodies must notify prosecutors of violations by media outlets," it said.
“It is a step backward that fits into a context of a diminishing freedom of the press,” said Yahya Qalash, a former head of Egypt’s Journalists union. “The danger here is not just to the freedom of the press, but to the survival of journalism as a profession in Egypt.”
A general-turned-president, Sissi has worked to quiet much of the media, demanding everyone fall in line with his policies to restore stability. But the threat of prosecution marks an escalation. In past years, authorities have generally used indirect methods to silence dissenters. The state media and most privately owned TV networks are loyal to Sissi and spearheaded by powerful talk show hosts who lavishly praise his policies, cover up failures and demonize critics.
Critical TV personalities have been removed from the air and dozens of independent and Islamist news sites on the Internet have been blocked. With pro-government media sometimes depicting foreign press as promoting a negative image of the country, cameramen in the streets can face harassment from crowds or police.
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Sissi has overtly warned that criticizing the vote or casting doubt on its legitimacy will not be tolerated. In past weeks, a string of would-be candidates were forced to drop out of the race or were arrested. In the end, el-Sissi is running against an obscure politician who has expressed his support for el-Sissi and entered the race at the eleventh hour to prevent the embarrassment of el-Sissi running unchallenged.
The state election commission’s guidelines for media coverage of the vote prohibited publishing any opinion polls during the five days preceding the vote and until it ends. It banned reporters from asking voters about their preferred candidate or conducting exit polls. Offenders would have their accreditation revoked.
Commenting on Sadeq’s statement, media expert Yasser Abdel-Aziz said Egypt’s war against Islamic militants may justify measures against “controversial” media outlets, but he cautioned that it’s a “step that reinforces fears about the already diminishing margin of freedom allowed by authorities.”
Prominent rights lawyer Nasser Amin said on his Facebook page that the prosecutor’s statement would likely have a “destructive impact on rights and freedoms on the one hand, as well as the Egyptian judicial system on the other.”
In its latest skirmish with the media, authorities on Tuesday called on officials and prominent individuals to boycott the BBC until the network apologizes for a report it broadcast on repression of dissent under Sissi that addressed torture and forced disappearances.
The State Information Service, which accredits foreign media representatives and monitors their coverage, also wants the BBC to publish its statement alleging the report contained inaccuracies.
The BBC report included interviews with activists and other individuals describing police abuses, including a mother who says her daughter was arrested by police a year ago and has not been seen since. It has dominated Egypt’s media over recent days, with pro-government commentators branding the report as another attempt to defame the country or spread propaganda inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamist group.
Egyptian authorities have waged a fierce crackdown on Islamists since 2013, when Sissi, as defense minister, led the military’s ouster of an Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood, whose one year in office proved divisive. Thousands of Islamists have been arrested and the campaign has also targeted secular pro-democracy activists, many of whom are now in prison.
Sissi has emerged as a global voice against Islamic extremism and has won praise for carrying out tough reforms seen as vital to repairing the economy. He has said he wants to build a modern and democratic state but has also said liberties must take a backseat to ensuring stability and fighting terror.