In February 2011, thousands gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding democracy and greater freedoms, including for the media.
Their voices — part of a regional sweep of protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring — ended Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule and briefly appeared to herald a new, more hopeful era for the country.
But 10 years on from the pro-democracy movement, press defenders say the Egyptian media face a serious decline, with many journalists deemed critical of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s government finding themselves behind bars, and independent outlets forced to close or banned, often under the justification of protecting national interests.
"Journalists took risks to tell the story of the square and share news on atrocities committed there,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told VOA. “What we have documented since over the last 10 years is one of the worst tolls against the press, wave after wave of journalists killed, imprisoned and censored.”
According to CPJ, 11 journalists have been killed in Egypt since 2011 while on assignment. Naming the country as one of the world's worst jailers of journalists (tied for third with Saudi Arabia), the advocacy group says the number of imprisoned journalists continues to rise in the country, from no arrests in 2012 to an annual average of 20 behind bars for their work since 2014.
Coup topples Morsi
Following Mubarak, the rule of Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi lasted only a year after he was deposed in a 2012 coup by el-Sissi. Upon arrival to power, el-Sissi detained Morsi and labeled his affiliated organization Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Press freedom groups say el-Sissi’s government, under the justification of war against terrorism, has over the years produced a media environment in which outlets have to firmly support the regime to survive. Those who express opposition are often accused of terrorism indoctrination and fake news spread to incite violence.
According to Human Rights Watch, Egyptian authorities since 2017 have acted without judicial authorization to block an estimated 600 websites containing news on politics and human rights.
The Egyptian government in the past has banned articles or media outlets that covered issues that the authorities deemed sensitive.
In June 2020, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation banned media from covering sensitive political, economic and health issues, including interviews with medical experts about the coronavirus, military operations in Sinai and a dam project in Ethiopia. The council urged the outlets to cover only the official information issued by the authorities, warning that legal action would be taken against violators.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to VOA’s request for a comment. However, Egyptian officials in the past have said press freedom has been constitutionally protected in their country and that their measures are to counter terror propaganda.
Often, accusations leveled at the media are for allegedly producing content that supports terrorism, spreads false news or supports outlawed groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Media rights groups argue, however, that such charges are in retaliation for critical coverage.
One of the many journalists jailed on charges of joining terrorist groups and spreading false news is Solafa Magdy, 33, a multimedia journalist who, her family said, has been beaten and sexually harassed by prison staff.
Taghred Zahran, Magdy’s mother, told VOA that she was currently the only person allowed to visit her in prison, with authorities preventing any legal representation for her.
“She always asks for her lawyers to visit her, but she is cut off from the world and from seeing anyone but me,” said Zahran, adding she has to seek supervision from a prison officer to see her daughter locked in al-Qanater women's prison in northwestern Cairo.
As a freelance reporter, Magdy covered topics such as human rights, press freedom, minorities, women's rights, refugees and sexual harassment in Egypt. She was arrested along with her husband, Hussam al-Saiad, in a cafe in Cairo in November 2019 on charges of spreading false news and joining a terrorist organization.
Earlier this month, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior published a short statement denying Magdy’s accounts of being tortured and abused in prison.
“Such claims come as a part of Muslim Brotherhood propaganda and its media to incite public opinion,” the statement said.
Madgy’s case exemplifies the initial hopes that have been eroded in the past 10 years.
After the 2011 uprising, Magdy saw a space not just for journalists but also women to be part of the conversation in Egypt. She started her own outlet, Everyday Footage — part multimedia agency, part training center — and the journalist has spoken at the United Nations on issues including human rights and media protections.
But 10 years after Magdy and other journalists found the freedom to speak out, she has been silenced by Egypt’s justice system.
Magdy’s 7-year-old son, Khaled al-Saiad, currently lives with his grandmother Zahran, who has shielded him from the truth about his parents’ arrest. Zahran said she wanted to spare the child from worrying and told him his parents were traveling and unable to return home because of the coronavirus restrictions.
“He knows something is not right because his mother usually calls him when in her travels. She is not allowed to make phone calls, and the situation is getting more painful for the entire family,” Zahran told VOA.
Magdy has been in pretrial detention for nearly 15 months without an official court hearing. Some journalism activists say her extended detention shows the degree of political interference in Egypt’s judicial system.
Before the 2013 coup, Egypt had a limited pretrial detention of three days. The detention period now can take up to two years, with the possibility of further extension.
Watchdog organizations, such as Amnesty International, in the past have accused the Egyptian authorities of “routinely using prolonged and indefinite pretrial detention” as a punishment against political opponents, activists and human rights defenders.
“They start a new case with same charges just to state a new number, and we call it the revolving-door policy to keep journalists in mass trials and hold them without evidence or lawyers or family, denying them any right of litigation,” Mansour, of CPJ, told VOA.
Some activists say the el-Sissi government’s effort to quash the press has gone beyond Egypt’s borders in some cases and has extended to a transnational repression.
The government in the past also moved to ban international organizations such as Al Jazeera and the BBC.
Hisham Abdullah, an Egyptian actor and journalist who fled with his family to Turkey in 2016 following arrest threats from the government, told VOA that he wasn't convinced Egyptian authorities would cease targeting him through harassing his relatives in Egypt or issuing international arrest warrants.
Abdullah was detained in 2018 for a few days in Turkey following a request by Egypt to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). He said the government failed to repatriate him forcefully but has turned to other tactics, such as revoking his wife’s Egyptian nationality, not renewing his passport and, in January, arresting several of their relatives.
Abdullah’s wife, Ghada Najeeb, said the government crackdown on her family was a “harsh sentence” that could further complicate their lives abroad. She said the couple were concerned about what might happen if the government refused to renew their four children’s passports next year.
Abdullah, Najeeb and their children had set up a tent in Tahrir Square during the anti-government protests in Cairo in 2011. While still optimistic in diaspora, the couple say they cannot help regretting how the uprising’s aspirations for freedom and dignity have turned into a nightmare.
“The oppression in Egypt now is the worst. Most of the activists ... are either killed, in prisons or exiled. But we cannot despair,” Abdullah said.
Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this report from Washington.