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Egypt v. BBC? Press Freedom Threatened Ahead Of Elections

A file photo of TV news coverage in Egypt
A file photo of TV news coverage in Egypt
Rana Mamdouh

CAIRO — There are "forces of evil" that control Egypt's media outlets, according to a statement issued last week by Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadek. To protect "national security" and prevent "spreading fear throughout society," Sadek instructed public prosecutors and regulators to monitor media outlets and arrest anyone who disseminates or broadcasts false news.

However, it is unclear whom Sadek was referring to in his statement. And in the absence of clarity, media regulators and lawyers are left to speculate whether the term "forces of evil" is confined to the spat with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over the critical report titled "The Shadow Over Egypt" on human rights violations in Egypt during President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's first term in office, or if it signals the beginning of a broader wave of future legal prosecution targeting journalists in the coming period in Egypt.

In his statement last Wednesday, Sadek wrote that certain media activities damage the public interest of the Egyptian state, and thus necessitate a legal response. The public prosecutor called on officials across media outlets and social networking platforms to inform the prosecution of any violations of the conventions of media and publishing.

The statement came hours after a call was issued by the State Information Service (SIS) to boycott the BBC, following the latter's publication of "The Shadow Over Egypt" by journalist Orla Guerin. That report details stories of torture, forced disappearances and activist arrests, and was accompanied by a short documentary film, Crushing Dissent in Egypt, which aired on BBC World and BBC News Channel on February 24 and 25.

The BBC report featured the case of Zubeida Ibrahim who, according to her mother's testimony, was forcibly disappeared by police authorities twice since 2015.

On Monday night, however, Ibrahim sat down for a nationally televised interview with media host Amr Adib, where she claimed that she had not been kidnapped or arrested. The episode was followed by a statement by the SIS falsifying the claims made in the BBC report, with Diaa Rashwan, the head of SIS, calling upon the British media outlet to apologize.

Head of the state-aligned Supreme Media Regulatory Council Makram Mohamed Ahmed asserts that the prosecution's statement was solely intended to apply to the BBC.

Ahmed tells Mada Masr that the BBC has refused to retract its "offensive" report, despite the "proof" provided by SIS falsifying the accusations. He describes Ibrahim's TV appearance as evidence that the BBC is "following an agenda that is aligned against the Egyptian state."

The head of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council continued to criticize the BBC, arguing that "it claims to be neutral, objective, and professional," but still uses the phrase "military coup against democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi" to refer to the events of June 30, 2013, arguing that, by doing this, the BBC ignores "40 million citizens who took to the streets during the June 30 revolution."

Let the prosecutor look himself.

However, human rights lawyer Negad al-Borai has a different interpretation of the public prosecutor's statement. "We are approaching a systematic campaign to silence what remains of media freedom," Borai says, pointing to a number of factors, including the timing and tone of the public prosecutor's statement, the SIS's calls to boycott the BBC, as well as the charges leveled against Strong Egypt Party head Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh for his interviews with "hostile" media outlets.

Last Wednesday's statement may indicate that the prosecution will take on an expanded police role, in Borai's eyes, one that is typically housed in the Interior Ministry. And although such a move is within legal bounds, monitoring media outlets does not fall within the general purview of the prosecution.

The rights lawyer says that this is the first time he has seen the prosecution ask its members to relinquish their powers of investigation in order to carry out arrests.

Ahmed asserts that the jurisdiction of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council and all other media bodies are limited to challenging the accuracy of content published by local and foreign media outlets in their coverage of Egypt, which includes reporting any violations. As for social media, Ahmed says that he does not know what the public prosecutor meant when he referred to "moderators of social media websites."

"Nobody in the world knows who is in charge of social media websites," he says. "I am not in charge of these websites. Let the public prosecutor search for them himself."

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