The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press but includes a clause stating, “it may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.”
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. The government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals. Individuals also faced societal and official harassment for speech viewed as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as using a hand gesture showing four fingers, a reference to the 2013 security operation to disperse the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.
The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” The president stated in a September speech that lying was a form of terrorism. Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities could use the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
On February 20, a Bulaq Abu el-Ela appellate misdemeanor court sentenced author Ahmed Naji to two years in prison on charges of violating public morals based on the publication of an excerpt of his novel, The Use of Life, which contained explicit descriptions of sexual acts and illegal drug use. Authorities had acquitted Naji of the same charges in January, but prosecutors appealed the decision. Numerous writers and intellectuals decried the verdict, describing it as part of a larger government campaign against free expression. On December 18, a court suspended the implementation of Naji’s sentence pending the appeal of his sentence. Naji’s next hearing was scheduled for January 1, 2017.
In May authorities arrested the five members of the satirical group Street Children after it released a video criticizing supporters of the president and the increasing number of arrests. Band members were reportedly under investigation on charges of attempting to topple the regime, publishing offensive videos, and inciting citizens against authorities. In May authorities released one band member on bail and released the remaining four members in September pending investigations.
Press and Media Freedoms: The constitution, penal code, and media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers and those of opposition political parties. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
The more than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The term for the governmental Higher Press Council, which had the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets, expired in January. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) sometimes criticized the government, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 25 imprisoned journalists in the country. Authorities continued to keep journalist Ismail Alexandrani in detention without formal charges at year’s end. Authorities detained him in November 2015 on arrival at Hurgada airport. On November 20, a court ordered his release, but authorities successfully appealed the release order. According to local rights groups, Alexandrani was under investigation for “reporting false news” and “joining a banned group.” Alexandrani’s reporting and scholarly work focused on the Sinai.
On May 1, authorities raided the press syndicate headquarters and arrested two journalists, Mahmoud el-Sakka and Amr Badr, according to members of the syndicate. Both journalists worked for an opposition news site, Bawabet Yanayer. The Interior Ministry claimed it had not raided the headquarters, and the journalists had willingly surrendered to authorities. Authorities referred el-Sakka and Badr to trial on charges of spreading false news and possession of firearms and Molotov cocktails. On August 27, a court ordered Badr’s release on bail of LE 5,000 ($275) pending investigations. On September 29, a court ordered el-Sakka’s release on bail of LE 5,000 ($275) pending investigations. The journalists’ arrests followed arrests of dozens of others on April 25, in connection with protests against the government’s announcement of a maritime border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia in which the government determined that Tiran and Sanafir islands fell under Saudi sovereignty. According to a local rights group, authorities released most of those detained that day after a short incarceration.
On November 19, a court sentenced Yehia Kalash, president of the press syndicate, and Gamal Abdel Reheem and Khaled el-Balshy, two syndicate board members, to two years in prison for harboring fugitives (el-Sakka and Badr) inside the syndicate’s headquarters and spreading false news in connection with the May 1 raid on the syndicate headquarters. The three were sentenced in absentia; they appealed the verdict, and the hearing was scheduled for January 14, 2017.
On August 27, according to media reports, an administrative court referred Azza al-Henawy, an anchor for state-owned al-Qahera TV, to trial on charges including insulting the president. Al-Henawy had criticized the president and made allegations of corruption during a March television broadcast.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued statements condemning articles critical of the country in international publications, sometimes citing the authors by name.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state and nonstate actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.
On May 23, authorities denied French news correspondent Remy Pigaglio entry into the country when he arrived at Cairo International Airport after returning from vacation in France. Pigaglio claimed officials at first prevented him from contacting the French ambassador in Egypt and, and after detaining him for more than 24 hours, deported him.
In June security officers took British-Lebanese journalist Lilian Daoud from her Cairo home by security officers immediately following the end of her employment contract with ONTV. Authorities briefly detained and then deported her, according to media reports. On her television show, The Full Picture, Daoud had hosted protesters and youth leaders as well as government officials. The program had expressed views critical of the government.
In September 2015 the Cairo Criminal Court began a trial of 48 defendants accused of being Muslim Brotherhood members and charged with participating in the 2014 protest in Ain Shams during which journalist Mayada Ashraf was shot and killed while covering the clashes between protesters and police. The next hearing was scheduled for February 13, 2017.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. On February 3, art-house cinema Zawya stated that the country’s Censorship Authority refused to authorize the screening of three short films as part of Zawya’s Short Film Festival. Zawya’s director speculated to media that in the case of two of the three films, authorities objected to the content of the films, which included sexual content and discussions of atheism.
In August government officials confiscated copies of an issue of privately owned Sout Alomma newspaper, which included an article about the health of the president’s mother and articles critical of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the overall anti-Muslim Brotherhood and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine.
Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported several cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, primarily targeting Christians but also Muslims.
On January 26, al-Khalifa Misdemeanor Court convicted writer Fatima Naoot in her absence and sentenced her to three years in prison and a fine of LE 20,000 ($1,100) for denigrating Islam by describing the Islamic ritual of sacrificing sheep during Eid al-Adha as a “massacre,” in a 2014 Facebook post. On March 31, the Sayeda Zeinab Appellate Misdemeanor Court confirmed the sentence. After Naoot appealed the decision, on October 20, the same court ordered her release pending investigations. On November 24, an appeals court reduced her sentence to a six months suspended.
On February 25, Bani Mazar Juvenile Misdemeanor Court sentenced four Christian high school students to five years’ imprisonment for denigrating Islam after the students appeared in video pretending to perform a Muslim prayer. The same court sentenced the students’ teacher, Gad Youssef Younan, who reportedly filmed the video, to three years in prison for denigrating Islam in December 2015.
Authorities released Mohamed Hegazy, also known as Bishoy Armia Boulous, from prison in July after spending more than two years in detention based on accusations that he had denigrated Islam in a symposium in 2009. A court ordered his release in June; however, over a period of several weeks, prison authorities claimed to have lost the court order and moved him to another prison without informing his attorney, according to media reports. During this time Hegazy recorded a video from prison in which he stated that he was reverting to Islam from Christianity; authorities released him shortly thereafter. Boulous unsuccessfully sued the Ministry of Interior in 2009 to recognize his conversion from Islam to Christianity, testing the constitutional right of freedom of religion.
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security. Judges may issue and have issued restraint orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. For example, on April 30, a court issued such an order in the case of protesters arrested during demonstrations against the government’s announcement of a maritime border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia in which the bilateral agreement determined that Tiran and Sanafir islands fall under Saudi sovereignty. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news” contradicting official Ministry of Defense statements. The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists.
An amendment to the police authority law, approved by parliament on August 9, bars police from providing information related to their work to media without permission from the Interior Ministry. An international NGO argued the amendment illustrated the government’s continuing effort to undermine transparency.
The government did not generally restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, albeit with some exceptions. The constitution protects the right to privacy, including on the internet. The constitution provides for the confidentiality and “inviolability” of postal, telegraphic, and electronic correspondence; telephone calls; and other means of communication. They may not be confiscated, revealed, or monitored except with a judicial order, only for a definite period, and only in cases defined by law. The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications. Law enforcement agencies occasionally restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period of time and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor occasionally prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.
The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications between suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum time period.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in northern Sinai by cutting telecommunication networks: mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines. Cuts generally occurred from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Networks were again fully accessible at approximately 8 p.m. and sometimes later. This tactic disrupted operations of government facilities and banks. The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, which can allow security forces to obtain information about activities of specific customers, which could lead to lack of online anonymity. Individuals widely used social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, during demonstrations and included widespread criticism of the government and security forces.
In July, Internet Live Stats estimated internet penetration to be 33 percent. A local civil society organization estimated 57 percent of families had internet access at home and four million persons used Twitter. A digital consulting company stated 28 million persons used Facebook.
There were reports that authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
On January 13, police arrested three administrators of Facebook pages that allegedly promoted antigovernment protests scheduled for the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, according to media reports. Two of the three were Muslim Brotherhood members, according to state-owned media.
In April international media reported that in December 2015 Facebook terminated its Free Basics Service, which provided mobile phone users with free access to a limited suite of internet services, because the company would not allow the government to circumvent the service’s security to conduct surveillance. The government previously stated that it had only granted the mobile carrier Etisalat a temporary permit to offer the service for two months.
On December 19, Open Whisper Systems claimed that Egyptian authorities were blocking access to its encrypted messaging application Signal.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom. In October, Minister of Higher Education Ashraf al-Shihy published a statement requiring private universities to review all research papers and thesis dissertations to assure they do not include any “direct or indirect insult to societies or individuals belonging to any brotherly or friendly countries.” According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, similar to that reported by nonacademic commentators, allegedly existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. In February media reported that in December 2015, Cairo University revoked permission for one of its professors, Kholoud Saber, to pursue her doctoral degree abroad. Saber told media the decision came from an office connected to the Interior Ministry. Separately, Cairo University President Gaber Nassar told media that security forces did not intervene in the university’s academic affairs. Days after publication of the news reports, Cairo University reversed its decision to revoke Saber’s permission to study abroad.
There was censorship of cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.
On January 20, authorities cancelled a scheduled concert by the band Elawela Balady, according to an announcement by the group, which is widely associated with the January 25 Revolution. A local human rights group described the move as an attempt by authorities to silence voices connected to the revolution.
Independent film center, Cimatheque, associated with Khaled Abdalla from the prominent revolutionary documentary The Square and the sister production company Zero Productions, remained closed since October 2015 and received regular visits from authorities. In February authorities allowed Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, which was closed by authorities in December 2015, to reopen under what its director told press were new legal restrictions; he alleged that some restrictions amounted to state control of its work. Townhouse’s affiliated Rawabet Theater, which was also raided in December 2015, also reopened. The Merit Publishing House, which authorities raided in December 2015, remained open. Authorities quickly released the Merit employee detained in December 2015.