The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press but includes a clause stating “it may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.”
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. The government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, or insults to public figures and institutions, such as the judiciary and the military. Individuals also faced societal and official harassment for speech viewed as sympathetic to the MB, such as using a hand gesture showing four fingers, a reference to the 2013 security operation to disperse the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.
A counterterrorism law issued on August 15 provided a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities could use the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
Local and international rights groups reported increased charges under the blasphemy law, primarily targeting Christians but also atheists.
On January 10, a misdemeanor court sentenced 21-year-old student Karim El Banna to three years’ imprisonment for denigrating Islam, after he wrote a post on Facebook supporting a campaign titled “Professing Atheism.” According to HRW his lawyers appealed the verdict, and the court released him on bail of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) ($129). The court confirmed the original sentence in his absence when he did not appear for the first hearing in the appeal.
In April a Muslim resident of Naseriya village filed a police complaint accusing four Christian high school students and their teacher, Gad Youssef Younan, of denigrating Islam after they made a video in which the students appeared to pretend to perform a Muslim prayer. On April 7, authorities arrested Younan, and on April 10, they arrested the students. On May 14 and May 27, respectively, the court released Younan and the four students on bail. The prosecution referred the defendants to misdemeanor court on charges of denigration of Islam, stirring strife, and publishing an offensive video. The trial continued at year’s end.
Bishoy Armia Boulous, also known as Mohamed Hegazy, remained in pretrial detention at the end of the year, and his case had not been referred to court. Authorities arrested Boulous in July 2014 on accusations of blasphemy reportedly related to comments he made at a seminar in 2009. Boulous unsuccessfully sued the Ministry of Interior in 2009 to recognize his conversion from Islam to Christianity testing the constitutional right of freedom of religion.
Press and Media Freedoms: The constitution, the penal code, and the press and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers, and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers and those of opposition political parties. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
The more than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The governmental Higher Press Council appointed and could dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets, and the governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) sometimes criticized the government, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
On November 29, media reported authorities arrested journalist Ismail Alexandrani on arrival at Hurgada airport. He remained in NSS custody at year’s end, according to a court order. According to local rights groups, he was under investigation for “reporting false news” and “joining a banned group.” Alexandrani’s reporting and scholarly work focused on the Sinai.
In November the governmental Radio and Television Union suspended Azza al-Henawy, an anchor for state-owned al-Qahera TV, from her position and referred her to an internal disciplinary investigation after she criticized the government response to flooding in the city of Alexandria and made allegations of corruption. The union stated she violated the channel’s professional code, which bans anchors from expressing their personal opinions on air.
In June the State Information Services launched a new initiative called Fact Check Egypt (FCE). Foreign journalists based in the country said that FCE staff contacted them to challenge the use of anonymous sources and the publication of information that contradicted official statements. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued statements condemning articles critical of the country in international publications, sometimes citing the authors by name.
Violence and Harassment: According to press reports and local and international human rights groups, state and nonstate actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. A local media observation group reported 18 incidents against journalists covering parliamentary run-off elections on October 27-28. The violations included prohibiting journalists from covering the polling process, arrests, damaging journalists’ equipment, and verbal assault. Local media reported that, on October 27, authorities arrested one local journalist and detained one foreign journalist while covering parliamentary elections. Authorities released both journalists after detaining them for a few hours.
According to a December 15 report by the international NGO Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 23 journalists remained in jail after authorities arrested them on a variety of charges throughout 2013-15. In most cases the charges were not directly related to journalistic activities, but authorities detained many while they were covering clashes between protesters and police. Authorities accused most of the journalists of affiliation with the MB. Additional charges varied from participation in illegal protests, publishing false news, spreading chaos to incite violence, murder, and possession of weapons. Of the imprisoned journalists, authorities convicted 11, and 12 were in preventative detention at year’s end, either undergoing trial or pending investigation.
On January 1, the Court of Cassation ordered a retrial in the case of the three al-Jazeera English journalists sentenced in June 2014 to seven years’ imprisonment on charges including “spreading false news” and aiding or joining a terrorist organization. On February 2, President Sisi ordered the deportation of one of the defendants, Australian citizen Peter Greste, by executive order, and authorities returned Greste to Australia before the retrial began. The retrial began in February (including Greste as a defendant in his absence), and on August 29, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced the journalists to three years in prison. On September 23, President Sisi pardoned the two al-Jazeera English journalists remaining in the country, Egyptian citizen Baher Mohamed and Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy. Rights groups welcomed the pardons while asserting that trial procedures violated fundamental rights to due process.
On September 15, the Cairo Criminal Court began a trial of 48 defendants accused of being MB members and charged with participating in the March 2014 protest in Ain Shams during which journalist Mayada Ashraf was shot and killed while covering the clashes between protesters and police.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. On February 18, customs officials in Alexandria confiscated 400 copies of a book documenting graffiti and street art from the 2011 revolution, despite the book’s receiving approval from the government’s Censorship Authority. The local prosecutor’s office stated it received information that the book’s contents “incited revolt and rioting.”
On May 11, government officials confiscated copies of privately owned al-Watan newspaper, which had published the headline “Seven Entities Stronger than Sisi.” Al-Watan reissued the newspaper with a new headline, “Seven Entities Stronger than Reform.” On March 11, al-Watan published an investigative report alleging some government ministries “evaded” taxes. Government officials confiscated all copies of the issue, and al-Watan reissued the newspaper, replacing the article with a report on the Economic Development Conference.
In May customs officials in Alexandria confiscated and disposed of Bibles imported from Spain and Qurans (allegedly “Shia versions”) imported from Iran. According to local officials, authorities based the confiscation on objections from the Awqaf Ministry, al-Azhar, and the Coptic Orthodox Church, which have the authority to approve religious texts.
Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the MB, due to the extremely anti-MB and progovernment media environment.
On May 15, local media reported that privately owned OnTV “suspended” a new television show about women’s issues hosted by Reem Maged, after two episodes. According to media government officials “pressured” the channel to remove Maged, who has produced reporting critical of the government. The channel claimed the decision was made for financial reasons.
The Yaqeen News Network closed in July after security forces raided its headquarters, confiscated equipment, and arrested the director of the network, Yahia Khalaf. The Ministry of Interior claimed the network was the “media arm” of the MB. Khalaf, who is free on bail, faced charges of joining a banned group and fabricating video clips with the intention of defaming the armed forces.
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security. Judges may issue and have issued restraint orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. For example, the court issued such an order in the case of the CSF police officer prosecuted in the killing of activist Shaimaa El Sabbagh (see sections 1.a. and 1.d.). Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
A counterterrorism law issued on August 15 imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news” contradicting official Ministry of Defense statements. The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists.
On November 8, military authorities summoned journalist Hossam Bahgat for questioning regarding a report he published describing a criminal military court’s conviction of 26 military officers for allegedly plotting a coup. Military authorities subsequently detained Bahgat for two days while military prosecutors investigated him on several potential charges, including publishing false news harmful to national security. On November 10, authorities released Bahgat without charging him; no information was available on the status of the investigation at year’s end.
The government did not generally restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, albeit with some exceptions. The constitution protects the right to privacy, including on the internet. The constitution provides for the confidentiality and “inviolability” of postal, telegraphic, and electronic correspondence, telephone calls, and other means of communication. They may not be confiscated, revealed, or monitored except with a judicial order, only for a definite period, and only in cases defined by law. The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications. Law enforcement agencies occasionally restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight and for a limited period of time and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor occasionally prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.
The counterterrorism law issued on August 15 criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecution and investigators to monitor and record online communications between suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum time period.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in northern Sinai by cutting telecommunication networks: mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines. Cuts continued on an average from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Networks were again fully accessible at approximately 8 p.m. and sometimes later. This tactic disrupted operations of government facilities and banks. The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, which can allow security forces to obtain information about activities of specific customers, which could lead to lack of online anonymity. There were no reports of widespread denial of service or blocking of social media sites during the elections and demonstrations that occurred during the year. Individuals widely used social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, during demonstrations and throughout the parliamentary election period and included widespread criticism of the government and security forces.
In May, Freedom House estimated internet penetration to be 32 percent. A local civil society organization estimated 57 percent of families had internet access at home; 24 million persons used Facebook and four million used Twitter.
There were reports that authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, similar to that reported by nonacademic commentators, allegedly existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. A local rights group reported a university professor in Cairo received a disciplinary letter from his department due to his perceived political beliefs. In December novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who has been critical of the government, cancelled a public seminar in Alexandria, claiming that state security had ordered the cancellation.
There was censorship of cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.
On December 28, authorities raided the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art and Rawabet Theater, which hosted lectures, symposia, and performances in addition to visual art exhibitions. According to press reports, security officials confiscated documents and computer equipment, and ordered the facilities closed. On December 29, authorities raided the Merit Publishing House and arrested one employee. Merit’s founder wrote on social media that the raid may have been related to upcoming cultural events scheduled at the publishing house.