It’s dangerous to be a journalist in Egypt these days, according to several human rights groups. In a statement this week to mark World Freedom Day, Amnesty International said there are at least 18 journalists who have been arrested and imprisoned for their work. One Egyptian photographer known as Shawkan has been held without charges or trial for more than 600 days.
Rights groups say that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has launched a crackdown after the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood that has strangled freedom of expression.
“The situation for media in Egypt is the worst it’s been in at least ten years,” Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told The Media Line. “Since July 2013 and the coup against Morsi, the government has closed all Islamist media including newspapers and satellite channels, leaving an extreme situation of closed media space.
According to Amnesty, “anyone who challenges the authorities official narrative, criticizes the government or exposes human rights violations is at risk of being tossed into a jail cell, often to be held indefinitely wihout charge or trial or face prosecution on trumped-up charges.”
The Egyptian foreign ministry said that all of the journalists were arrested based on a warrant from the public prosecutor and afforded due process, and called Amnesty’s allegations “politicized nonsense.”
The most famous case is of three journalists from Al-Jazeera who were jailed for more than a year at the end of 2013. One, Peter Greste, an Australian citizen was recently released and the other two men are awaiting a retrial.
“We’ve seen the Al-Jazeera journalists given prison sentences based on very flimsy evidence,” Nadine Haddad, an Amnesty campaigner for Egypt told The Media Line. “We’ve seen journalists arrested in their homes with no solid evidence. There is a trend against any journalists who are critical of the state narrative.”
Dunne agrees, saying that after all of the Islamist outlets were closed, most others decided to toe the government’s line, for fear they would be closed too. All of that has sparked a sharp increase in internet and social media use as a source of news. According to Mada Masr, an independent website, internet use in Egypt has tripled and Twitter use has expanded tenfold s the crackdown on print and TV has worsened. About half of Egypt’s population of 87 million is under the age of 25.
The crackdown on media has led to increasing polarization in Egyptian society, says Dunne.
“The remaining media that has been allowed to operate is strongly pro-military and pro-Sisi, and has engaged in a systematic campaign of demonization of Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood”, Dunne said. “We see a lot of violent action that is fueled by the media.”
The pro-democracy protests from 2011 that led to the resignation of long-time autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak fueled hopes that Egypt would become a democracy with a vibrant free press. Instead, any media that criticizes the government is summarily closed and journalists are thrown in jail with impunity.