How the Media Freedom Landscape in Egypt has been Changing

Written by: 
Patricia Nakayima

For a journalist practicing in Egypt, the struggle for better working conditions continues.  The North African country continues to be one of the most dangerous countries for Journalists to operate, according to the 2022 prison census of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Egypt has for long registered various cases of arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, ill treatment and enforced disappearance of journalists, with the CPJ indicating that at least 21 journalists were jailed in 2022 alone. Other countries mentioned in the report alongside Egypt include Eritrea where 16 journalists were arrested in 2022, Cameroon with five arrests, Rwanda with four, Morocco with three and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with two arrests.

A decade of shrinking

Safety of journalists working in Egypt became a subject of bigger concern during and after the 2011 civil uprisings, also known as the Arab Spring which started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A decade later the effects of that uprising which toppled President Hosni Mubarak appear to be shaping the way the government handles human rights issues, including press freedom.

According to the Middle East Institute (MEI), President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has repeatedly been quoted saying that media has an important role to play in shaping public opinion and rebuilding Egypt after the events that followed 2011 uprisings. He however abhors negative coverage which polarizes the country at a critical stage of rebuilding it.

In 2016, Reporters Without Borders issued what the organization called an open letter to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi raising concerns about the arrest and detention of journalists in Egypt. At the time of writing the letter, at least 32 reporters were either detained or serving long prison sentences.

Earlier, in 2014, the same year President Sisi took office, the government of Egypt had nationalized four private newspapers in a move observers said was aimed at targeting critical media. Reporters Without Borders quoted Amira el Fekki, an editor at the time with Daily News Egypt, one of the newspapers targeted for nationalization, as saying that this was an example of the shrinking public sphere in Egypt. “Like others, it was wrongfully classified as an organization with a political bias towards a certain group, an accusation randomly used to create hostility towards independent media,” she said.

In 2017, in a major crackdown on the media, Egypt banned at least 62 websites.

History of nationalization

Egypt has a history of nationalizing the press. Following the Egyptian revolution of 1952, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was President of Egypt from 1954 to 1970 nationalized the Egyptian press, including all privately owned press organizations. The ownership of these organizations was handed over the National Union, later renamed the Arab Socialist Union. Just like President Sisi appears to be doing now, President Nasser’s government mobilized the press behind his socialist policies, as was already the case with the state-owned broadcasting system.

When Anwar el Sadat took over from following Nasser’s death in 1970, he loosened some of the censorship policies but retained the government’s control of the media.

President Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat in 1981, lifted many of the restrictions and censorship and allowed the media to operate with some relative freedom than most of the Arab and African countries. He allowed independent newspapers to operate again and journalists enjoyed relative freedom.

 Abundant skill, limited scope

Maha Salaheldin, an investigative and data journalist at Masrwy, in an interview says Egypt has become a very tough working environment for Journalists during Sisi's regime as compared to the previous governments.

"We believe that the country cannot bear a new political movement like 2011. Also that Egypt has suffered for a long time from terrorism, which required firmness at some point, but the matter is improving now,” she said.

Maha explains a paradoxical situation of “a difficult feeling where we have many tools and skills, but we use them in a limited scope, and we have self-censorship on what we can work on and what we cannot.”

Maha adds that journalists operating in Egypt have not enjoyed any of their rights since President Sisi's Government has become more of a watchdog to whatever story is reported about it. She narrates that in 2011, following the fall of President Mubarak, people saw hope in journalism since journalists had a short-lived free and fair environment to operate.

“The year 2011 and beyond were the brightest eras of journalism,” Maha says, adding: “We were moving in the field, photographing and documenting. We were able to use all our capabilities. Dozens of journalists won dozens of awards and produced dozens of investigations.”

Abeer Saady a Journalist and a media safety trainer in Egypt, says it's a broad topic to discuss how the political atmosphere has influenced media freedom over time. She says Egypt lacks complete democracy whose benchmarks include freedom of the press.

She says: “Egypt like other country in Africa hasn't practised complete democracy and we didn't develop a system that can represent us. Journalists are however not advised to engage in politics and so it can help them practise their work well.” Listen to Abeer Saady on #SoundCloud

Relatedly, Dr. Mohamed Saad, a representative of the international mass communication institute – El Shorouk Academy, is quoted by the Middle East Eye saying Egypt experienced a leap in freedom of press in the period following the January 2011 revolution which later turned into a mess. He adds that the press was split into two parts with one part representing the revolution and another representing the remnants of the previous regime.

“We can regard the period of the legislative elections following the revolution of the 25th of January 2011 and the presidential elections in 2012 as the phase with the greatest freedom of press, even greater than the freedom margin that was there between 1950 and 1952,” says Saad.

Commenting of press freedom under President Sisi's Government, Saad is quoted describing the press as all about “mobilization and monism”.

“A press solely representing the actual political authority. We saw many newspapers and talk shows being stopped because the political system didn’t want any pluralism using the claim of terrorism and other challenges facing the country and foreign conspiracy. Consequently, there’s a tendency to go back to mobilization of the press that existed in the era of President Gamal Abdel Nasser,” he said.