CAIRO — If Egypt's daily newspapers are your only source of news, you might have woken up Tuesday to discover that a citizen by the name of Mohamed Morsi al-Ayat died yesterday during a court hearing on espionage charges.
In actuality, the seemingly unremarkable 67-year-old was the first democratically elected, civilian president of Egypt. A senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he was elected in June 2012 and was ousted a year later by the military on the back of popular protests.
This information was irrelevant to the June 18 editions of Egypt's newspapers, which conspicuously dropped any reference to Morsi's presidency. The homogeneity was even starker: the majority of newspapers published the same 42-word news article to announce the death of the former president.
This 42-word story was sent to news editors by a government entity over the messaging application WhatsApp, a practice increasingly used by authorities to dictate press coverage, according to a source working in one of the newspapers. This came with instructions to place the brief account of Morsi's death on the inside pages as opposed to the front page, the source adds.
During a live broadcast on a TV channel owned by the General Intelligence Service, an anchor — reading from the teleprompter — ended her report on Morsi's death by saying, "Sent from a Samsung device," in an apparent gaffe suggesting television outlets also received scripted messages for their reports.
While newspapers were notified of Morsi's death about 10 minutes after he was declared dead upon arrival at the hospital, where he was transported after falling unconscious during a court session, most newspapers waited for official instructions on how to cover the event, according to the source.
The instructions were followed by the three state-owned papers: The 42-word news piece was featured on the third page of both Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhoreya and on the fourth page in the "incidents' section of Al-Ahram's first edition. The story was moved to the centerpiece position of the page in the layout of Al-Ahram's second edition, when statements by the general prosecution office were added.
Private newspapers also abided by the instructions. Youm7, Al-Dostour and Al-Shorouk published the Whatsapp story on their third page. Al-Watan also published the piece on the third page, tacking on the statement from the general prosecutor's office.
Only one exception on the front page
The only exception to the uniform layout and report came from Al-Masry Al-Youm, which published the news on their front page and mentioned Morsi's title as a former president.
The state's interest in controlling the narrative around Morsi's death was made more apparent in a shrill press release issued by the State Information Service in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The body responsible for "regulating" foreign media coverage took umbrage to a tweet published by Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, in which she linked Morsi's death to the state's "failure to allow him adequate medical care, much less family visits."
The SIS, which is headed by Diaa Rashwan, head of the Journalists Syndicate, published a statement saying Whitson has sunk to a "new ethical low" and that her allegations of medical negligence were "nothing but unfounded lies." The statement pointed to an official report in 2017 saying Morsi "was in good health, and was only suffering from diabetes," despite numerous accounts by rights organizations that document the former president's health had deteriorated as a result of medical neglect in detention.
Morsi died Monday in court during his retrial in an espionage case. After addressing the court for several minutes, Morsi fell unconscious beside other defendants in the defendants' cage. He was immediately taken to a hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead on arrival.
According to Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, one of Morsi's defense lawyers who spoke to Mada Masr by phone, Morsi asked the court to allow him to meet with his representation in his final address, arguing that his court-appointed lawyer did not have the requisite information to properly defend him. Being barred from legal consultation, the former president likened himself to a blind man who knew nothing of what was going on in his trial or in the media.
Morsi was buried Tuesday morning in a cemetery in Cairo's Madinet Nasr neighborhood where a number of other prominent Islamists are also interred. According to Abdel Maqsoud, all members of Morsi's immediate family were present at the burial. Ahmed Morsi, the former president's son, took to his Facebook page to say that authorities had prevented his family from burying Morsi in their family cemetery in the Sharqiya governorate.