Journalism in Egypt has effectively become a crime in the past four years, as authorities crack down on the media and disagree, Amnesty International said in a new report.
As the number of coronavirus infections in Egypt continues to rise, the government is strengthening its control over information rather than maintaining transparency during the crisis, according to the report by the London human rights group on Sunday.
"Egyptian officials have made it very clear that anyone who challenges the official narrative will be severely punished," said Philip Luther, Amnesty director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Amnesty documented 37 cases of journalists arrested in the government's growing crackdown on press freedom, many accused of "spreading false news" or "misusing social media" under a broad 2015 counterterrorism law that expanded the definition of terror to include all types of dissent.
Marking World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, Amnesty urged Egyptian authorities to stop censorship, harassment and intimidation of journalists – and to release detainees "just for doing their job".
There were no comments from the Egyptian government, but the authorities previously denied violations of rights and justified arrests for national security reasons.
Among the media workers arrested in Egypt is Mahmoud Hussein of Al Jazeera, a Doha journalist who was arrested in 2016 during a visit to his family in Cairo.
He was detained without charge for more than 1,200 days and there are concerns about his health during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mostefa Souag, managing director of Al Jazeera Media Network, called on world leaders in a letter published on Sunday to join "the call to action for the immediate release of Mahmoud Hussein and all other imprisoned journalists worldwide".
"At Al Jazeera, we are supportive of all our colleagues in the media," he said. "We believe that no journalist should be intimidated, harassed or imprisoned for doing his duty. We believe in the fundamental truth that freedom of expression is the basic foundation for defending the values of democracy."
& # 39; Fake news & # 39;
Since General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2013, most television programs and newspapers in Egypt have taken the government's position and avoided criticism, or disappeared.
Many privately owned Egyptian news outlets have been quietly purchased by companies affiliated with the country's intelligence service.
But even a pro-government voice did not spare 12 journalists who worked in the state media, who came to prison for expressing various private opinions on social media, said the Amnesty report.
One of them is Atef Hasballah, editor-in-chief of the AlkararPress website. When he contested the Ministry of Health's coronavirus case count on his Facebook page last month, he was promptly arrested on suspicion of "joining a terrorist organization".
Egypt's public prosecutor warned in a recent statement that those who spread "false news" about the coronavirus pandemic could face up to five years in prison and heavy fines.
So far, 12 individuals have been caught in the coronavirus-driven crackdown, according to Amnesty.
Last month, authorities blocked a local news site that covered calls from activists to free political prisoners for fears of the coronavirus spreading in Egypt's crowded prisons.
Separately, Egypt expelled a correspondent from The Guardian for an article that indicated that the rate of coronavirus infection may be higher than officially reported.
The journalists interviewed by Amnesty reported an increasingly direct state intervention in their coverage.
Many who work for property documents or government-aligned documents said they receive specific instructions via WhatsApp on what to report and what to omit.
For example, a directive on how to deal with U.S. President Donald Trump's proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this year asked reporters not to mention violations of the plan to long-standing Arab policies, as Trump and el -Sisi cultivated close ties.
Those who do not follow the official line, including praising the conditions of the prison and defaming the state's political opponents, "lost their jobs, were interrogated or arrested," a journalist told Amnesty.
"I can't even imagine that anyone could refuse to comply."
Al Jazeera and news agencies