Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, 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 MB, 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 that lying is 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 May 11, authorities arrested Amal Fathy on charges of abusing a means of communication and publishing a video containing false news after she uploaded a video to her personal Facebook account in which she described her experiences with sexual harassment in the country. Fathy was convicted and received a suspended two-year prison sentence and fine on September 29. Authorities also referred her to State Security Prosecution on charges including joining a banned group and using a website to promote ideas and beliefs advocating the commission of terrorist acts. On December 30, an appeals court upheld the conviction.
On May 30, a Cairo criminal court ordered the travel ban against author Ahmed Naji lifted; after several months’ delay, authorities allowed him to travel in September. The order followed the conclusion of his retrial on April 24 in which authorities fined him 20,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) ($1,120). In 2016 authorities sentenced 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. In May 2017 the Court of Cassation cancelled the sentence against Naji and ordered his retrial.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. Independent media reported that entities wholly or partially owned by the intelligence services assumed control of several independent media companies throughout the year. 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 National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. 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) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
On September 1, the president ratified a new media regulation law. Egyptian and international rights organizations criticized elements of the law, including the size of the registration fees, as well as a requirement to treat social network accounts with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets. Under the law the Supreme Media Regulatory Council could block or shut such social media accounts if it deemed they published or broadcast false news. In October the council announced it would begin accepting applications, although the government had not yet issued executive implementing regulations. In response on November 5, Katib, a site launched by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information in June documenting rights violations, announced it was freezing operations indefinitely in protest of what it considered an opaque registration process.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 25 imprisoned journalists in the country.
According to press reports and human rights defenders, between February 4 and May 23, authorities detained at least 18 journalists, bloggers, researchers, and students on charges including spreading false news and joining a banned group. The defendants were charged under two cases, 621/2018 and 441/2018, and included prominent blogger Wael Abbas; documentary filmmaker Momen Hassan; University of Washington, Seattle, doctoral student Walid al-Shobaky; satirist Shady Abu Zeid; chief editor of the Masr al-Arabiya news site Adel Sabri; and former Constitution Party leader Shady al-Ghazaly Harb. According to rights groups, several of the detainees were forcibly disappeared. Several remained in custody at year’s end, and detention renewal hearings continued. On December 3, a Cairo appellate court upheld a verdict to release Abbas, Hassan, and al-Shobaky on probation pending investigations.
On September 24, security forces raided the headquarters of privately owned al-Mesryoon newspaper and placed it under the managerial and editorial control of the governmental Akhbar El Youm Foundation. The raid followed a September 11 decision by the Inventory, Seizure, and Management Committee of Terrorist Groups Funds to seize the assets of the newspaper’s publishing company.
On May 22, a military court sentenced journalist Ismail Alexandrani to 10 years in prison. Authorities had detained the Egyptian investigative researcher in 2015 at Hurgada Airport upon his return from Berlin. In 2016 a court ordered his release, but authorities successfully appealed the release order. In December 2017 State Security Prosecution referred Alexandrani’s case to the military prosecutor. 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 Sinai.
On December 3, a court ordered a 45-day extension to al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein’s pretrial detention. In 2016 authorities arrested Hussein in Cairo, accusing him of disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities to defame the state’s reputation. Subsequently, authorities have held him in pretrial detention, and, according to press reports, he has yet to face formal charges.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state 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 February 20, authorities detained Bel Trew, a British reporter with the Times of London who had been living in Cairo since 2013, and deported her to London. According to press reports and the government, authorities arrested her after she conducted an interview with the relative of a man who died on a migrant boat to Europe. According to Trew’s public statements, authorities said she could stay for a military trial or leave the country. The government stated that Trew did not have the proper permit to conduct journalistic activities at the time. Trew said that she had applied for a 2018 annual press permit, but the government had not yet issued these, instead requiring journalists to apply for monthly temporary permits in the intervening time.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The SOE empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses.
On April 12, State Security Prosecution summoned the editor in chief of al-Masry al-Youm and seven of the newspaper’s correspondents as part of investigations into a headline the paper published during presidential elections. The headline, “The State is Amassing Voters on Final Day of Polling,” appeared in the first edition of the March 29 paper. Authorities released the group pending further investigations. On April 1, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation fined the paper LE 150,000 ($8,380), ordered the paper to publish an apology, and referred the editor in chief to investigation by the Journalists’ Syndicate. On April 4, the paper’s board of directors ordered his dismissal.
Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the MB, due to the overall anti-MB and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine.
In January the Censorship of Artistic Works Authority confirmed to media it would confiscate any books at the annual Cairo International Book Fair that included MB or terrorist ideology.
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 May 3, police arrested blogger Sherif Gaber and detained him for four days on denigration of Islam charges. A Salafist lawyer had filed a complaint against him a few weeks prior accusing him of insulting the Islamic religion and sharia, disrupting communal peace, inciting strife in society, denying the definite truth of Islam, and criticizing the Prophet Muhammad in his YouTube videos. Gaber was arrested for similar charges in 2015 and 2013.
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In March authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.
Judges may issue 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. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
In August prosecutors ordered satirical blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, detained for 15 days. Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers, had been detained since November 2017 in a separate case involving charges of belonging to a banned group and spreading false news. He was due for release on bail when prosecutors added him to Case 441/2018 (see above). According to his lawyer, a State Security investigation report accused Khorm of “communication with AI and HRW from his place of detention” and described the two organizations as having an “antagonistic position [to the Egyptian state].” He remained in detention at year’s end.
On July 15, HRW published a report claiming that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, and critics for their peaceful criticism. The report documented nine ongoing court cases since 2017 involving 36 defendants, including activists, bloggers, and journalists, who authorities detained and investigating under the country’s counterterrorism law.
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.
Despite legal protections, the government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. There were credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Law enforcement agencies 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 and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor 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 among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period.
The cybercrime law, ratified by the president in August, states, “the relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government did not issue implementing regulations for the law by year’s end.
On May 26, an administrative court issued a final ruling ordering regulators to block YouTube for one month. In 2013 a lower court ordered the site blocked for hosting a short film purportedly denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, but the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority appealed. The ruling has not yet been enforced.
There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications. On February 2, authorities blocked the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project, a Google-led open source website publishing tool.
On July 7, a Cairo misdemeanor court sentenced Lebanese tourist Mona el-Mazbouh to eight years in prison on charges of defaming religion, insulting the president, and insulting the Egyptian people. The sentence was appealed and reduced to a one-year suspended sentence on September 9. The charges stemmed from a video she posted to her Facebook account in May in which she complained about sexual harassment and used profane language to describe the country. In June authorities arrested El-Mazbouh at the airport as she prepared to depart the country.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines. Cuts generally occurred daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Networks were again fully accessible at approximately 8 p.m. and sometimes later. Cuts also disrupted operations of government facilities and banks.
The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which could lead to lack of online anonymity. Individuals widely used social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, to spread criticism of the government and security forces.
There were reports 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).
As of September the government had blocked more than 490 websites without providing a clear legal basis or authority responsible for the blocks, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared to respond to critical coverage of the government. For example, on June 25, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information launched a website, Kateb, focusing on human rights violations. It was blocked nine hours later.
In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. On September 30, the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. Defense lawyers claimed it could take years to examine the case.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 39 percent of the population used the internet in 2017. Media reported 1.7 million active users on Twitter and stated 37 million persons used Facebook.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. The removal of references to the country’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions from high school history class curricula continued after a 2017 decree from the Ministry of Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, similar to that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. Faculty members needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad.
There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in June declares it unlawful to hold a special event or festival without “prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” This new requirement added to existing regulations, under which organizations must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture’s Censorship Board, as well as permits from the Ministry of Interior and the relevant artists’ union for concerts, performances, and other 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 February 18, authorities arrested film editor Ahmed Tarek. According to his lawyer, authorities held Tarek incommunicado at National State Security headquarters until February 21. Tarek faced charges of spreading false news and joining a group established contrary to the provisions of the law. The charges stemmed from his work on a documentary, Minus 1,095 Days, which sought to rebut claims in a state-produced film highlighting President Sisi’s accomplishments called 1,095 Days. He remained in pretrial detention as of December 19.
On June 14, the Central Administration for the Control of Audiovisual Works reversed a decision to ban the film Karma after deciding to withdraw its screening license several days earlier for undisclosed reasons. Karma addressed several controversial topics, including interfaith marriage and corruption. In response to the initial ban, members of the Film Committee of the Supreme Council of Culture had threatened to resign.