Egypt fires a warning shot at the foreign press

Charges against 20 Al Jazeera journalists appear to be just the opening shot, with the government issuing warnings to foreign reporters in Egypt.

Egypt's Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seen during a news conference in Cairo on the release of seven members of the Egyptian security forces kidnapped by Islamist militants in Sinai, in this May 22, 2013 file photo.

The crackdown on basic freedoms in Egypt has expanded to the foreign press, with indications from the military-led government that the vague allegations that have been used to jail opposition supporters and local reporters will be relied on to muzzle foreign reporters. 

Last week Egypt said it was moving forward with cases against 20 Al Jazeera journalists, four foreigners among them, on charges of abetting terrorism and "spreading false news." The charges against the reporters prompted queries from the foreign press in Cairo about the risks of being labeled criminals for conducting interviews with the Muslim Brotherhood - recently outlawed as a terrorist group - and otherwise carrying out normal reporting duties. The response was not reassuring.

Egypt's State Information Service (SIS) sent an explanatory note to the foreign press last week that claimed freedom of expression is guaranteed in Egypt, but the note is littered with caveats and get-out clauses.

It reads, "Egyptian law ensures (press) freedoms completely and does not penalize for thought and opinion unless this thought turns really to a materialistic behavior that the Egyptian Penal code forbids. And this falls within the crimes that threaten the country’s national security and its benefits."

Everything that follows "unless" in that sentence means that press freedoms aren't guaranteed at all.

Some foreign reporters in Cairo say government officials have privately warned them off talking to members of the group, which remains the country's largest political movement, banned or not.

On this the information service wrote:

"The SIS also notifies that Egyptian law does not criminalize mere contact or foreknowledge of any accused criminal or a person imprisoned in a pending case as this is not considered a punishable offense to be penalized except if this contact is a sort of assisting or inciting or as a result of a prior agreement."

The "except" is key, once again creating a caveat big enough to drive a truck through. Almost anything can be considered "inciting" and the current government has frequently used this allegation in its crackdown on dissent. Consider the plight of the Al Jazeera journalists.

The prosecution's case against the Al Jazeera reporters is built around the theory that their reporting on the Brotherhood - Egypt's largest political movement, which had won control of parliament and the presidency in free elections in 2011 and 2012 - amounted to direct material support for "terrorists." Since the coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi last July, the military government led by Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repreatedly characterized the movements members as terrorists and had the group outlawed on that basis at the end of December.

The channel had taken rooms in a hotel to work, and the state prosecutors described this operation as the "Marriott terror cell" in a statement last week, saying the network was producing "false news" in support of criminal activity. The claim that they are terrorists has been eagerly picked up in the Egyptian press and on the streets.

The government may be leading the charge against reporters, but the effort for now is a popular one. Minor assaults of reporters, once unthinkable there, have become frequent occurrences when covering protests.

Although Al Jazeera is a particular target for the government since the network is owned by Qatar, a supporter of the Brotherhood, that's no guarantee that spurious charges of "false news" won't be used to target other reporters.

Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights, summarized the situation on Friday:

In recent months, there have been numerous reports of harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists as well as violent attacks, including several that led to injuries to reporters trying to cover last weekend’s third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Unconfirmed reports suggest that several journalists were wounded by live fire as well as rubber bullets last Saturday, some of which may have been fired by opponents of the government as well as by police and other government forces. This accentuates the difficult and increasingly dangerous environment for journalists trying to carry out their work in the country.

A significant number of other journalists covering events related to the anniversary were detained by the authorities, although most are reported to have now been released. Wednesday’s announcement that the Egyptian Prosecutor-General intends to bring to trial 16 local and 4 foreign journalists alleged to have worked for the international broadcaster Al Jazeera, on vague charges including “aiding a terrorist group” and “harming the national interest”, is also of great concern.

It has not only placed a sharp focus on the systematic targeting of Al Jazeera staff – five of whom are actually in custody -- since the fall of the previous government last July, but also led to increased fears among the media in general, both national and international, which is clearly deeply detrimental to freedom of expression and opinion.

The government's warning against "inciting" is another indication of the absurdity of the situation. Almost anything can be construed as "inciting" - and mere criticism of the government has historically been treated as such in Egypt. Other things that a reasonable person would consider actual incitement and "false news" can be completely ignored.

Like the many calls to "kill all the Muslim Brotherhood" members on social media and Egyptian television lately, for instance. Or consider the now-famous rant of former lawmaker Mostafa Bakry in January on a popular talk show, in which he insisted that Barack Obama is plotting the assassination of Field Marshal Sisi and called for Americans in Egypt to be dragged from their beds and killed if the assassination succeeds:

Slaughter the Americans in the streets. We will not leave them, we will not leave them... our enemies will be America, Obama and their puppets here in Egypt. Let anyone touch Gen. Sisi and all Egyptians will confront the traitors and the criminals and we'll kill them in their houses. This is a warning to everyone we will enter their houses and will kill them one by one... if anything happens to Gen. Sisi there will not an American left on the face of the earth. Not here and not abroad.

Until now Mr. Bakry has not been charged with either incitement or spreading false news. I doubt he ever will be.

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