A joke being recycled in Egyptian media offers a glimpse into the state of press freedom five years after the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak: “In Egypt, there is freedom of speech,” goes the joke, “but no freedom after speech.”
January 25 will mark five years since the popular uprising that ousted President Mubarak and, after the brief presidency of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, ultimately brought former general Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to power.
Security forces this week arrested the administrators of more than three dozen Facebook pages “on charges of inciting against state institutions and spreading the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as calling for marches on the coming January 25," Interior Ministry spokesman Abu Bakr Abdel Karim told Egyptian television Wednesday night.
Authorities Thursday detained and banned from travel Egyptian poet Omar Hazek as he attempted to board a plane for The Hague to accept an Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. .
The same day, police raided the offices of the privately-owned news site Masr al-Arabia, arresting and later releasing its managing editor, and they detained a prominent doctor/social activist.
The arrests came as a Cairo court sentenced four journalists and a rights advocate to three years in prison each on charges of “publishing false news” and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Decreasing speech freedom
Media watchdogs say the political climate in Egypt is more repressive than ever.
“Last December, when we conducted our annual census of the numbers of imprisoned journalists, Egypt was second only to China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2015,” said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“When we compiled our annual report for 2015, we found that Egypt was holding 23 journalists behind bars, compared to 12 just one year before. And since then, we’ve seen more and more journalists detained by the authorities, sentenced and referred for criminal charges,” Mansour added.
Among those detained are Mahmoud Abou Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, 28, a photojournalist whose work has been featured by TIME, the BBC and other international outlets. He was arrested in August 2013 while covering clashes between Egyptian security and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi at the Rabaa protest camp in Cairo. He has been held without trial ever since.
Egypt's Cabinet this week also approved a draft presidential decree which would criminalize the possession and distribution of “terrorist symbols.” It would effectively outlaw the “Rabaa” - the four-fingered salute used by the Muslim Brotherhood - as well as the clenched fist symbol used by the April 6 Youth Movement
Penalties would include jail and fines of up to 30,000 Egyptian pounds - about U.S. $3,830.
In December 2013, following the ouster of then-president Morsi, Egypt listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and passed a number of harsh counter-terrorism laws that impose tough sentences on offenders.
In January 2014, Egyptians voted on a new constitution which contains several provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression and the press; however, it also authorizes media censorship “in times of war or general mobilization” and allows for imprisonment for the often broadly-interpreted charges of inciting violence, discrimination and defamation.
Restricted press freedom is not unique to Egypt. Across the Middle East, topics such as politics, religion and sexual matters are routinely censored. Reporters Without Borders places Egypt 158 out of 180 countries on its 2015 World Press Freedom Index – that’s slightly better than Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Syria, who place near the bottom.