Khaled Elbalshy (C), board member of Egypt's Press Syndicate and the head of its Freedoms' Committee, demonstrates with…
FILE - Khaled Elbalshy demonstrates with fellow journalists outside the Journalists Syndicate headquarters in Cairo, May 4, 2016, following the arrests of two reporters.

Cairo journalist Khaled Elbalshy launched his news website Darb — Arabic for Path — in March to provide an alternative to Egypt’s mainstream news media and to protect independent journalism.

But one month later, access to the site was blocked. And in September, authorities arrested Elbalshy’s brother, Kamal, to try to pressure the journalist into stopping.

Darb, which also documents violations against journalists and activists, is not the first independent publication Elbalshy founded. That was launched while the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was still in power. But all the sites have been blocked under consecutive governments since Mubarak’s presidency. One, Katib, went offline after only a few hours.

Since 2017, authorities have acted without judicial authorization to block an estimated 600 websites containing news and politics or focused on human rights, according to the World Report published by nonprofit Human Rights Watch.

“Blocking a website will affect its work. Limiting its outreach will hold any possible revenue that might be generated from reaching to as much people as possible. This will prevent the platform’s work from evolving and growing, and it will send a sense of frustration to journalists that it is no use to be part of a platform that does not reach people,” Elbalshy told VOA.

To get around blocks, Elbalshy publishes content on social media like Facebook, which can be viewed in Egypt, as well as his website, which is accessible from other countries.

The shutdowns have not discouraged the journalist from trying to create a space for free and independent journalism in Egypt, but Elbaslhy says the arrest of his brother is the harshest measure Egypt has taken against his work.

Complete control

Only a few independent media outlets remain in Egypt that offer news outside the official narrative. Those websites cover stories considered “sensitive” by the government, like human rights violations or corruption by state officials.

For their editors, it is crucial to keep a free space for future journalists.

“We are trying to keep alternative journalism alive. Platforms like Mada Masr, al-Manassa and my attempts, we have a responsibility in guarding a free space for future journalists and journalism,” Elbalshy said.

These sites face financial, political, economic or religious pressure that make it harder for journalists to work with them because of loss of earnings or intimidation through arrests of them or their relatives.

FILE - Journalists chant slogans in front of the Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, Nov. 19, 2016, to protest the sentencing of the head of the union and two members to two years in prison.

The Egyptian government has been tightening its grip on media by restructuring media institutions and introducing laws that regulate journalism and media platforms. Activists say that the harassment of a free press soared in 2013 when President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power after the army deposed the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

The country ranks as the third worst jailer of journalists in the world, with 27 in prison, according to a report released in December.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to VOA’s request for a comment. Cairo has previously rejected international criticism of rights abuses, saying its arrests and other actions were in response to national security concerns.

In June, el-Sissi issued a decree to reshuffle members of the bodies that regulate TV, radio, print and online media in Egypt, including the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR).

'Negative' practices

The newly elected members have vowed to stand together against all “negative media practices,” and the media council ruled that only official government statements should be used in reporting on sensitive political, economic and health issues, such as the response to coronavirus, military projects in Sinai, Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia about the latter’s dam project, and any story related to the president, his family and army generals.

Elbalshy said that these practices aim for complete control over media in a country where most outlets are owned or affiliated with those in power.

“On the legislative level, the government made harsh laws to regulate media. We have daily practices of jailing people and charging them with publishing fake news on social media,” Elbalshy said.

“These arrests are legalized through exceptional laws that opened the door for blocking and censorship, which gave security officers the authority to arrest anyone who publishes anything, under the accusation of spreading fake news and abusing social media.”

Even social spaces and religious expression are policed, Elbalshy said, citing arrests over content posted to TikTok and Instagram. In July, a court sentenced two women in their 20s to two years in prison and fined them for “violating Egyptian family values” with videos that showed them dancing and clowning around.

Push for freedoms

Despite the risks, journalists continue to advocate for a free press in Egypt. Earlier this month, Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), testified at a private hearing before the U.S. Congress.

In his testimony, Mansour described how his family has been punished for its work fighting for democracy and freedom in Egypt. Even after Mansour and some relatives left the country, authorities still harass members of the extended family, most recently arresting one of Mansour’s cousins, Reda Abdelrahman, in August.

A prosecutor this week renewed Abdelrahman’s custody order until January 13.

“Sadly, Reda’s case is not unique in Egypt, but also not unique for my family. Many of us have faced arbitrary detention, torture, threats by religious extremists and intimidation by state authorities,” Mansour said in his testimony.

Link to aid

Experts say one way to encourage greater press freedom would be to make progress a condition for international aid.

A massive spending bill approved by the U.S. Congress includes $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt. The bill includes requirements such as the support of independent media and internet freedom programs in countries including Egypt.

Mansour believes that conditional aid will at least pressure the Egyptian government to ease its crackdown, adding that Cairo should not be given military and financial support, training and collaboration from the U.S. with impunity.

“The U.S. government did not challenge these governments enough, by aid conditionality, by withholding Washington trips and other means that provide these governments with the legitimacy that they use for oppression,” he said.

While journalists at Egypt’s remaining independent media outlets continue to challenge the punitive measures targeting them, the political environment in Egypt remains largely hostile to their work.

“The situation of journalism in general in Egypt is the worst of all times. There is a total absence of the idea of a free press,” Elbalshy said.