By Rahul Gupta
In 2015, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told CNN that Egypt enjoys “unprecedented freedom of speech.” His government’s actions, however, betray a considerably bleaker reality. As of 25th May, 21 websites have been blocked in Egypt, including Al-Jazeera and its affiliates, the Arabic Huffington Post, and Mada Masr among other publications. Blocking of websites, as the editor of Mada Masr points out, is a tactic hitherto unused by the regime.
The background story
In conversation with Reuters, two Egyptian security sources have stated that access to these websites has been blocked because of their affiliations with Qatar and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has shared a tumultuous relationship with Egypt since President Morsi was removed from power in July 2013. The rift reached its tipping point when on 24th May 2017, the Emir of Qatar allegedly made statements in praise of Israel and Iran, two nations which are major regional rivals. Following the comments, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also blocked the Qatari-backed Al-Jazeera. Qatar, however, claimed that the comments were not genuine, and in fact were a consequence of a security breach where unidentified individuals had managed to gain access to Qatar News Agency’s Twitter account for approximately 4 hours.
Reasons for implementing the ban
Citing a sovereign entity, the agency claimed that the 21 sites had been blocked “for having content that supports terrorism and extremism as well as publishing lies.” Most activists have declared that this allegation is unwarranted. A reporter from one of the blocked sites speaking with Buzzfeed News reported that the blocked websites came in two categories-some that were actually sponsored by Qatar, and others that had no Qatari or Muslim Brotherhood link, consistently publishing articles that were unfavourable to the regime. The official reason for banning the websites, however, remains unclear from the current statements.
Officials at the National Telecom Regulatory Authority have neither confirmed nor denied the blocking of the websites, one official speaking to Reuters said that “so what if it’s true, it shouldn’t be a problem,” while other officials speaking to Buzzfeed News said “We have nothing to do with it, believe me.” Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Hassan Al-Azhary, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, said that the power for blocking websites is supposed to be vested with the General Prosecutor. However, no word had been received from his office. This further increments the impropriety of the entire affair.
An objectionable history
It must be observed that the Egyptian government under President Sisi has been no friend of the freedom of speech. In December 2016, his government was responsible for passing a law that vested the power of fining or suspending publications and broadcasters with a particular council. This council was also awarded the additional right of granting and revoking of licences for foreign media. In May 2016, the Egyptian police raided the headquarters of the Press Syndicate, essentially a union of journalists, and arrested two reporters. The government’s practice of arresting and threatening journalists has been noted by the EU and its 28 member states, the US State Department and Human Rights Watch. These facts paint a clear image of a regime that is particularly sensitive to criticism and dissent through mass media.
President Sisi, at the start of his term, used private media to a large extent in order to galvanise support against the Muslim Brotherhood, but competing centres of power within the government and a failure to improve the conditions of the people have stripped him of this support. The blocking came in the days following the arrest of Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer who announced his intentions of running against Sisi in the 2018 presidential elections. Whether the regime directly coordinated these acts is not known, but the benefit it derives is unquestionable.
Consequences of this decision
By controlling media and access to it, the government is able to control a narrative. If left unchecked by a robust media, this narrative runs the risk of portraying the government in the way the ruling class wants it to be portrayed. This highjacking of the information highway limits the ability of people to pick representation that best suits them. If the Egyptian movement does not roll back on its fight against the media, not only does it effectively kill the principles of a democracy but it runs the risk of further alienating an unhappy populace.
Information cannot be repressed, with expanding telecom technology and new channels of information evolving every day, no government can ever hope to fight the truth. Even the blocked websites can be accessed by using VPNs and associated technology. The Egyptians in the last five years have occupied Cairo Square in protest time and over again, and this tenacity will prevail against any sort of information embargo.
The blocked information outlets have already begun uploading their news on other platforms, the banner on the blocked Mada Masr read “We are the children of margins; from there we emerge and re-emerge.”
Featured Image Source: The Huffington Post
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