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‘He Would Not Accept Censorship’: Egyptian Journalist’s Arrest Signals Sisi’s Growing Anxieties

The arrest of Hossam Bahgat in Egypt this weekend is just the latest in a string of attempts by the Egyptian government to cover up bad news.

An Egyptian man sorts newspapers at a distribution center just off Cairo's Tahrir Square on December 2, 2011.  Egypt awaited the delayed publication of results for the opening phase of its first elections since the overthrow of veteran president Hosni Mubarak which are expected to confirm an Islamist sweep.
AFP PHOTO/ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
An Egyptian man sorts newspapers at a distribution center just off Cairo's Tahrir Square on December 2, 2011. Egypt awaited the delayed publication of results for the opening phase of its first elections since the overthrow of veteran president Hosni Mubarak which are expected to confirm an Islamist sweep. AFP PHOTO/ODD ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Through intimidation and arrests, the Egyptian government has in recent years forced independent journalists into such extreme self-censorship that many have fled the country or stopped writing at all.

But in the past two months, international incidents, including the accidental deaths of eight Mexican tourists at the hands of Egyptian security forces, and the Oct. 31 Russian plane crash in the restive Sinai Peninsula, have tightened the knot on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s already rigid media crackdown.

On Sunday, independent journalist Hossam Bahgat was arrested and charged with “publishing false news that harms national interests and disseminating information that disturbs public peace.”

According to Negad al-Borai, the lawyer Bahgat requested, the charges are related to an Oct. 14 article he wrote for Egyptian outlet Mada Masr, revealing that in August a military court secretly convicted 26 military officers of plotting a coup to overthrow the current regime.

The article, published in both Arabic and English, was one of the only stories published about the secret trial, and included anonymous interviews with relatives of the defendants.

But it likely was not just that article that pushed Egyptian officials to pursue Bahgat’s arrest, said Sherif Mansour, who coordinates the Middle East and North Africa program for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mansour said Bahgat’s daily press reviews for Mada Masr also likely raised the government’s ire: The journalist criticized other Egyptian publications for censoring themselves to please the image-conscious government in the wake of the Russian plane crash, which Western officials believe may have been the result of a bomb.

“The military has gotten away with a lot of censorship practices, and I think they were not used to someone saying ‘no,’ and that’s what’s unique about Hossam,” Mansour told Foreign Policy. “He would not accept censorship.”

In his October article, Bahgat reported that government officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mansour said the article was well-sourced, and Bahgat had offered to accommodate a response from the government or issue a correction if any details were proven wrong.

Instead, on Thursday, weeks after the story was published, Bahgat received a police summons, and was arrested when he appeared Sunday at the military intelligence headquarters for questioning. Military prosecutors said he will be held for four days, but Mansour said that if history is any indication, Bahgat could await trial in a prison cell for much longer than that.

“In our experience, most of the people who have gotten into pre-trial [proceedings] have been given months and sometimes years before they can appear in front of a judge,” Mansour said. “The government basically is using its own law to politicize trials and target journalists.”

Bahgat’s arrest is the latest in a series of moves by Sisi’s administration that restrict the free speech of journalists. Although three high-profile al-Jazeera journalists were pardoned in September, at least 20 other journalists remain in custody in Egypt.

In September, after Egyptian military forces mistook picnicking Mexican tourists for terrorists and shot them dead, the government announced a total media blackout, barring journalists from any reporting on the incident until a government investigation is complete.

That was extreme even for Sisi, who in August signed into law legislation barring journalists from straying from the government narrative when reporting on terrorist attacks.

On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesman said the U.N. chief was “concerned” by the arrest, and categorized it as “the latest in a series of detentions of human rights defenders and others that are profoundly worrying.” But with increased terrorist activity in the Sinai, Sisi, who came into power after overthrowing former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, is doing everything he can to preserve his image at home — even if that means coming under scrutiny internationally.

“The government has been under so much pressure recently over their handling of terrorism, and handling of the Russian airplane incident,” Mansour said. “That made them a lot more edgy, and they want to ensure people will continue to toe the line and only provide the government narrative.”

Photo Credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

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