'Fake news' becomes tool of repression after Egypt passes new law
Governance 'Fake news' becomes tool of repression after Egypt passes new law
âBroadcasting false rumoursâ criminalised as government imprisons journalists and bloggers to stifle dissent
When officers from Egyptâs National Security A gency came crashing into Amal Fathy and Mohammed Lotfyâs house on a pre-dawn raid in early May, there was little mention of the words âfake newsâ.
The couple were taken to the local police station along with their infant son, who was released together with his father several hours later.
It was only the next day, when Fathy was taken to see the local prosecutor, that the charges were revealed. They included âspreading false newsâ with intent to topple the Egyptian regime, as well as âdamaging public order and harming the national interest,â membership of a terrorist organisation and using the internet to âpromote ideas and beliefs calling for terrorist actsâ.
Fathyâs alleged crime was making a video criticising the prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt, and posting it on Facebook.
âThe government looks down at critical opinions and labels them fake news affecting the national interest, in order to detain opposition or critics,â said Lotfy.
Donald Trumpâs cries of âfake newsâ may be well received by the US presidentâs supporters, but in Egypt the phrase is now a powerful tool of government repression. The countryâs president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, recently said the government faced â21,000 false rumours in three months,â warning that it is spreading instability.
Fathyâs case is a grim new norm, after Egyptâs parliament passed a sweeping new media law criminalising the spreading of âfalse newsâ for anyone with more than 5,000 social media followers.
While the first case was the prolonged trial and imprisonment of three al-Jazeera journalists in 2013, the Egyptian authorities have in the past few months stepped up their crusade, with at least eight journalists and bloggers arrested in a spate of accusations over fake news.
Among them was blogger Wael Abbas, who was also arrested in a dawn raid, freelance photographer Fatma Diaa Eddin, who was detained with her husband and child, and journalist Moataz Wadnan, who went on a hunger strike to protest against his solitary confinement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented two cases of other journalists now in hiding and Lebanese tourist Mona el-Mazbouh was this month sentenced to eight years in prison for âdeliberately broadcasting false rumours which aim to undermine society and attack religions,â after she posted an angry online video describing sexual harassment on her Egyptian holiday.
The legislation offers no definition of what constitutes fake news, but permits the blocking of websites alleged to have published offending material.
In March, Egyptâs public prosecutor set up a hotline for citizens to report âfake news and rumoursâ.
Shortly after Sisiâs re-election in March, Egyptian police raided the offices of news website Masr al-Arabia and arrested the editor-in-chief after it republished a New York Times piece on vote-buying. He was later accused by Egyptâs Supreme Council for Media Regulation of publishing âfalse newsâ. Their website is one of more than 500 currently blocked in Egypt, which ranks 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index released annually by Reporters Without Borders.
Many observers believe that Trumpâs fondness for lashing out at the press has empowered his allies to do the same. The spokesman for Egyptâs ministry of foreign affa irs even imitated Trumpâs language when angered by CNNâs coverage in November last year, referring to the network as âdeplorableâ in a tweet, a day before the Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry appeared on the network.
âEvery morning when I hear the words âfake newsâ here in the US, itâs like a punch in the stomach thinking about it in an Egyptian context,â said Sherif Mansour, CPJâs coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
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