Egypt: News websites and alternative voices

In a country deeply polarized after three years of tumultuous change, Egyptian news websites have become very important media for free expression. This study looks at some of the pressures they are experiencing. News websites are among the most popular websites in Egypt. They represent an alternative to ‘traditional’ broadcast and print media, with their long histories of state control and supervision. Online news is a partially regulated space – freer than the traditional media but not as free from regulation as social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. But there are indications that the space for free expression on news websites may shrink in the near future, under pressure from a combination of new legislation and, reportedly, new surveillance tactics that may set precedents for the whole of the Middle East and North Africa.

Egypt’s 2014 constitution provides guarantees for freedom of expression, and Egypt has ratified international treaties committing itself to international standards for free expression. But Egyptian law allows for many restrictions on free expression, some of which are not in conformity with those commitments. For a period of five decades, a state of emergency shut down dissent and sweeping laws from that era still provide severe punishments for vaguely defined crimes such as defamation or incitement. Before the 2011 revolution, these laws were enforced unevenly. But they helped to maintain a resilient and adaptable system of self-censorship. That self-censorship system was totally disrupted by the revolution and the explosion of internet news and social media which it set off. Since the uprising, a succession of Egyptian governments have sought to reinstitute the self-censorship system, adopting or proposing laws that restrict public protest and free association and that may define some forms of legitimate free expression as terrorism. These measures contravene Egypt’s commitments to free expression, which arise from its ratification of international human rights treaties. They have helped push traditional media back towards self-censorship, and helped to extend the self-censorship system to news websites.

This study looks at a selection of news websites, which represent the main political viewpoints in Egypt today. It begins with an overview of the websites, categorizing them by traffic ranking, news values, legal and financial status, and political orientation. It then sets out the results from interviews with editors and journalists from these websites, discussing freedom of expression and experiences of censorship and self-censorship. The study covers the period from July 2013, when a military government took over, to September 2014. The journalists answered four main groups of questions:

  • Do news websites offer a wider range of opinions than traditional media?
  • How do government officials deal with journalists?
  • How does censorship or self-censorship work?
  • How much awareness do journalists have of changing media law?

The answers revealed certain aspects about the nature of censorship and self-censorship in Egyptian online media. The key findings were as follows:

  • Online journalists believe news websites can disseminate a greater diversity of opinions than the increasingly homogenized voices of the traditional media. Free expression of alternative and dissenting voices is important at a time when Egyptian society is divided, but the legislative trend in Egypt is going the other way – towards a ‘single voice,’ as one editor put it.
  • Officials seldom pressure journalists directly. In fact, most online journalists find it very difficult to get officials to take their calls and to confirm or deny facts. Most online journalists are not recognized as journalists and this makes it hard for them to establish relationships with officials.
  • There is little direct censorship, but all editors and journalists deal cautiously with sensitive stories, such as the role of the military in the economy, sectarian tensions, or the Muslim Brotherhood – a movement whose political party came to power in 2012, but was deposed and then declared a banned terror organization in 2013. Some websites feel that the pressure is relatively limited – but others feel that new repressive laws are affecting them directly. Several journalists have been killed during protests and online journalists that work for websites not associated with a print publication are not able to get press cards. Press cards provide an extra measure of security for journalists and might grant them a modicum of safety during protests. Online journalists are therefore at higher risk and this means that protests are less likely to be covered. As well as the protest law, the crimes of incitement, defamation and support for terrorist organizations are used to restrict websites linked to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. These vague and sweeping laws frame a system that makes online journalists more cautious about reporting on dissent.
  • Journalists are familiar with laws in place and see them as complex, open to interpretation and arbitrary. The overwhelming majority of interviewees, especially these from independent and Muslim Brotherhood affiliated websites, believe that it will be increasingly difficult to continue as a journalist in Egypt in the coming year.

Free expression is under threat in Egypt. Many online journalists are trying to keep up reporting on the country’s diverse and polarized voices. They fear that new laws will pressure their websites into greater conformity with government views, and they believe that public conformity could worsen their country’s divisions. The Egyptian government should ensure that its laws conform to its commitments to free expression and align with international standards.