CAIRO — Egyptian authorities have blocked nearly two dozen news websites, targeting publications that have been critical of the government, a move local journalists say is aimed at controlling the coverage of the regime ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
The country’s state-run news agency MENA announced on Wednesday that 21 websites were being blocked in the country because they were “supporting terrorism and extremism” and “spreading lies.” Egypt’s independent news site Mada Masr, Qatar-run news channel Al Jazeera, HuffPost’s Arabic edition, and local Egyptian publications like Araby21, Rassd, and Egypt Window are among the websites that have been banned.
“This is not the typical Egyptian regime attitude,” Lina Attalah, the editor-in-chief of Mada Masr told BuzzFeed News in an interview in Cairo. “We are used to facing troubles with the regime since we have always chosen to write the stories they don’t like to hear. We are used to being arrested or have cases filed against us, but blocking us is a new thing.” Mada Masr, since its founding in 2013, has regularly published critical stories of the regime in both English and Arabic.
The blocking of the websites comes one day after the arrest of prominent human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, who had announced his intent to run as a candidate against President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in the 2018 presidential elections. Authorities in Egypt have targeted activists from Ali’s Aish We Horreiya — “Bread and Liberty” — party, and arrested at least 36 people in 17 cities throughout the country from five opposition parties and political youth groups. Many of the arrested have been accused them of insulting Sisi on social media platforms.
Ali, who has been charged with “violating public morals,” will face a trial on Monday, and if found guilty, has to face a year in prison and will be barred from running for presidency. The charge is based on a photo of him on social media, which showed him displaying his middle finger last January after he won a prominent case to reverse Sisi’s decision to hand over control of two islands to Saudi Arabia.
“Blocking the news sites is a direct message from the state to the media that they won’t allow any opposition voice leading up to the elections,” Ali told BuzzFeed News. “The state simply wants to have full control over all the media until the elections are over.”
Attallah, the editor of Mada Masr, said the timing of the arrest of Ali and other members of the opposition, and the blocking of the websites indicates that there is a connection. But Attalah said that wouldn’t stop the publication from carrying on its work.
“I don’t feel that this is the end of Mada Masr yet,” Attalah added. “We haven’t decided what to do next — we might use other social sites to publish. The only thing that i can confirm now is that “the fight goes on.”
Egyptian officials at the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority refused to provide details on the full list of sites that have been blocked. One senior official who picked up the phone denied that the government that blocked access to any sites. “We didn’t shut down anything. We have nothing to do with it, believe me.” When asked who would have the authority to block access to the sites, the official said “I don’t know” before hanging up the phone.
Hassan Al-Azhary, a lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, said any decision to block access to websites should be taken by the general prosecutor but there hasn’t been any official statement from his office so far. “We don’t really know why these sites were banned and if they intend to ban other websites, too,” Al-Azhary said.
An aide to a top editor of a local paper, who only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because of fears of arrest, said the editors at the publication had received orders “from above” to write articles against the sites that have been blocked.
On Thursday, Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of the leading publications in the country, published a report, which they said was sent by a “sovereign entity” — a term locally used to refer to the intelligence services — in which it defended the decision to block the sites. “It is the state’s right to defend the country and ban any sites it considers dangerous to the national security,” the report said.
A senior reporter at Rassd, one of the blocked websites, said the sites that have been blocked are two kinds: one group of sites, like Al-Arab, Al-Raya, Al-Watan Al-Qatry have links to Qatar and have already been shut down Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The other group includes local independent sites like Mada Masr and Rassd, which consistently publish articles that the regime considers unfavorable towards it. “They want to control every narrative before the election,” the reporter told BuzzFeed News.