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Egypt Has a Creative Way of Hiding Bad News: Banning Journalists From Reporting on It

Cairo has promised a full investigation into why its security forces accidentally killed eight Mexican tourists. Too bad Egypt has now banned journalists from reporting on it.

People celebrate at Tahrir Square with a portrait of Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after a broadcast confirming that the army will temporarily be taking over from the country's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013 in Cairo. In their tens of thousands, they cheered, ignited firecrackers and honked horns as soon as the army announced Morsi's rule was over, ending Egypt's worst crisis since its 2011 revolt. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People celebrate at Tahrir Square with a portrait of Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after a broadcast confirming that the army will temporarily be taking over from the country's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013 in Cairo. In their tens of thousands, they cheered, ignited firecrackers and honked horns as soon as the army announced Morsi's rule was over, ending Egypt's worst crisis since its 2011 revolt. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian officials have a new plan for how to deal with the accidental killings of eight Mexican tourists last weekend: force the media to act like it never happened.

The office of the country’s top prosecutor issued a ban on any further press coverage of the mysterious attack that killed the tourists and their four Egyptian guides after they were mistaken for insurgents in Egypt’s increasingly violent Western Desert, a popular safari destination. The gag order, which was announced late Wednesday, came after Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu flew to Cairo to meet with her Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, to relay her country’s concern and anger over the attack.

At a news conference after their closed-door meeting, Shoukry avoided an outright apology for the deaths, saying only that they were “regrettable.” Egyptian officials had initially said the tourists were strafed by Egyptian helicopters after their SUVs drove into a restricted area, but Ruiz Massieu rejected that explanation Wednesday. “They had arranged a number of trips over the space of two weeks — and for this purpose they had all the necessary permits,” she said, adding that the incident was “terrible” and “unprecedented.”  

Shoukry had tried to defuse the simmering fury in Mexico before his meetings with Ruiz Massieu, penning an open letter that ran in Mexican newspapers Wednesday assuring “the Mexican people that an impartial inquiry is being held, under the leadership of Egypt’s prime minister himself, and that Egypt is prepared to do its utmost to help in any way it can.”

It’s precisely that purportedly broad, impartial, and fair-minded investigation that the media has now been banned from covering. The gag order is unusually expansive, applying to both local and international news organizations, as well as to content printed, posted online, or aired on TV or radio.

The new media ban is the latest sign of how far Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is willing to go to make it harder for journalists to report on the human toll of Sisi’s escalating push to rein in his Islamist political opponents and use force against the militants carrying out attacks from Sinai to Cairo. Hundreds of fighters and Egyptian troops have been killed so far this year, and Sisi has overseen mass trials that have resulted in as many as 683 members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood being sentenced to death in a single day. In June, an Egyptian court upheld a death sentence for Sisi’s predecessor, former President Mohamed Morsi.

Journalists are the newest group to find themselves squarely in Sisi’s crosshairs. Sherif Mansour, who coordinates the Middle East and North Africa program for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Foreign Policy the crackdowns under Sisi’s administration have largely focused on reporting that addresses terrorism and national security issues — the top two priorities of the increasingly autocratic Egyptian leader.

After Sisi took over the presidency, “a lot of independent and critical journalists were forced into exile, and many are now in Turkey, New York, and Qatar,” Mansour said. “Those who stayed behind retired, were put in jail, or were forced into silence.” Today, he said, there are more than 20 journalists behind bars in Egypt. That’s despite Sisi’s promises at the United Nations General Assembly last year that under his leadership, freedom of expression would reign.

Close to a year after his U.N. address, Sisi’s administration remains on a CPJ risk list for its treatment of journalists. The list was most recently updated in 2014, with the group saying that over the course of 2013, the press “became increasingly polarized politically.” After Morsi’s fall in July 2013, international news outlets seen as critical of the military regime were “systematically harassed.”

The media-related provisions in the new anti-terrorism legislation that Sisi signed into law in August help explain why. The initial draft of the anti-terrorism bill included language that said journalists could be jailed for at least two years for printing “false information on terrorist attacks that contradict official statements.”

That was removed from the final version of the bill, but it’s still far from press-friendly. Journalists who take issue with government accounts of militant strikes could still be fined 200,000-500,000 Egyptian pounds, or between $25,000 and $64,000. Those are crippling sums of money in a country where reporters are poorly paid, and many local media organizations are barely solvent.

Said Boumedouha, the deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International, said at the time that the “new law will become yet another tool for the authorities to crush all forms of dissent and steamroll over basic human rights,” labeling it “an abomination.”

Sisi is slated to attend the U.N.’s annual meeting in New York again this year, and Mansour said it is a good opportunity for the international community to pressure the Egyptian leader to reevaluate his restrictive press freedom laws. “We’re hoping this year there will be a pushback on his lack of delivery on promises of freedom of speech and freeing journalists,” Mansour said.

That’s likely to be an uphill fight. In late August, three journalists working for the Al Jazeera English news network were sentenced to three years in prison for “aiding a terrorist organization,” stunning observers inside and outside the country who’d expected the case to be dismissed.

The three men had initially been convicted in 2014 of aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood, but an Egyptian appeals court had ordered a retrial. That decision cleared the way for Egyptian authorities to deport one of the three men, Australian Peter Greste, and release Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed on bail. In the most recent ruling, Greste was sentenced in absentia, while Fahmy and Mohamed were placed back in a Cairo prison. Mohamed also received another six months for possession of a spent bullet casing.

All three deny the charges, with Greste telling Al Jazeera that the ruling was “unjust,” “unethical,” and “immoral” and the European Union labeling it “a setback for freedom of expression in Egypt.”

Photo credit: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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