Report Summary: More Than the Authority of Repression – The Status of Free Speech in Egypt 2016

On Sunday, February 12, 2017, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression released their fourth annual report on the state of freedom of expression in Egypt in 2016 under the title “More Than the Authority of Repression.” This report presents thorough evidence and accurate observations on freedom of speech in Egypt. 

Besides monitoring and documenting violations, the report analyzes government policies related to the freedom of speech in Egypt. The report provides an analytical and critical reading of the developments on the organizational legislative environment on the freedom of speech on different fields: the freedom of the press and media, freedom of expression and creativity, the right to knowledge and information circulation, the freedom of digital expression, and the right to digital privacy. 

In part one, the report offers changes to the legislative environment and governing legality of freedom of speech in Egypt, with respect to laws and discussions inside the House of Representatives, and their position on rights and freedoms in Egypt. The report also focuses on some of the laws and draft laws that were raised in the House as a legal project that was put up by two of the representatives to abolish imprisonment for publishing cases related to violating public decency. A bill to abolish the religious affiliation from the National ID cards was rejected, and developments relating to protest law after the law was found unconstitutional by article ten in the constitution.

Freedom of Press

With regards to freedom of the press and media, the report observed 438 examples of violations within the domain of 22 governorates. Journalists were most vulnerable to abuses; 164 journalists and 62 media broadcasters suffered direct violations. Abuses took many forms, for example the organization documented 193 cases preventing journalistic and media work, and 62 journalists and media were detained without charge. Recently seven members of the media were suspended for a limited time period before being released.

The association reported 43 journalists aggressively beaten and 17 violations related to a ban on broadcasting episodes of television programs, halting newspaper issues, or printing articles. It should be noted that the House of Representatives is one of the main perpetrators that infringed upon the freedom of press and media. The report also monitored 30 violations against the rights of individuals who work in press and media, which varied between banning broadcast sessions, forbidding the press from covering the news of the House of Representatives, and prohibiting the press from entering the House by order of the House’s president.

This report also covers the case of breaking into the Journalist’s Syndicate, and the trial of Yahya Qalash, the head of the Syndicate, Khalid al-Balshi, a member of the Syndicate, and the Secretary-General Gamal Abdulrahim. The report singled out part of the law regarding the organization of media groups and its impact on freedom of speech, the status of press and media freedom in Egypt.

Freedom of Expression and Creativity

According to the report, the year with the most violations on freedom of creativity in Egypt is 2016. The report observed 78 innovators suffered violations, compared with 46 violations in 2015 and 21 violations in 2014; this shows that the status of creative freedom is declining. The violations observed vary between banning and censoring artistic works, deleting scenes from television series, prohibiting travel, preventing entrance into Egypt, and imprisoning contrivers on the grounds of publishing their artistic works. Works of art dealing with politics are the main reason for 44 violations compared with 15 violations for the denial of creative works that allegedly violate morals and public decency (15 violations) or religion (six violations).

In 2016, the Ministry of Interior was the main perpetrator in censoring creativity with 26 violations on artistic works, 22 violations against technical unions, and 15 violations against trade unions reported by a watchdog agency. The report also looks at the influence of the Value Added Tax Act on freedom of creativity, and decisions of the executive power that violate freedom of creativity, such as increasing concert set-up fees by the Supreme Council for Antiquities and increasing photography fees in archeological and other sites. The report focuses on some of the important issues relating to creativity in 2016, like the case of novelist Ahmed Naji (the case of his novel “The Use of Life”), the end of graffiti art in Egypt, and the continued arrests of graffiti artists.

Right to Knowledge 

That section which discusses the right to knowledge and circulation of information, is dealing with the legislative environment and regulations in Egypt. The report focuses on the executive branch’s decisions that restrict the freedom of information. For example, the incident which saw the head of the Central Auditing Organization, Hisham Geneina, removed from his post, the legal amendments which violates the independence of watchdog agencies and removing heads and members of independent bodies from office were issued by the President of the Republic. These procedures have made the executive branch keen on not publishing information from regulatory agencies in media reports, or on addressing the right to access information on public issues, such as the agreement on the maritime border with Saudi Arabia concerning ownership of Tiran and Sanafir islands, in which the authorities refrained from providing relevant documents even to judicial authorities. This section discusses the refusal of the executive authority to submit a law that grants information access. A bill was proposed by one of the members of parliament but was ignored, and a report was even released to the House of Representatives and a law on the circulation of information was not discussed. This means that the constitutional provisions that guarantee access to information to all citizens is not being put into effect. This situation is a reflection of the state’s basic principle that withholding information is necessary for national security.

Digital Rights

In the final section, the report addresses digital rights in Egypt, focusing on a number of issues related to virtual freedom of expression and internet privacy during 2016. It deals with issues in the legislative environment, such as the cybercrime law submitted by an MP in the House of Representatives, and a report issued by the Commissioners Committee in the State Council on the question of monitoring communications in Egypt, also known in the media as “the electronic fist.” The report also addresses the government practices of imposing a block on encrypted correspondence through smartphones, blocking the site “Al-Araby al-Jadid,” and attempts to send malware to computers by internet service provider TE Data, attempting to block the use of Tor and Secure Hypertext Transfer, which provide a layer of protection for user privacy and digital security. In addition to monitoring violations related to digital rights. The report recorded at least 57 violations of individual digital expression rights. It also has documented 28 cases in which citizens have been arrested because they are managing Facebook pages, nine violation on the ground of posting opinions on their personal accounts. There have also been 18 documented cases of violations carried out by universities in Egypt, in an attempt to crackdown on student movements and student rights and freedoms, as more students take to social media to express their views.

Image: Photo: Still taken from report website.