ProtectDefenders.eu received information regarding the Egyptian Public Prosecution’s decision to refer Bissan Kassab, Rana Mamdouh, and Sarah Seif Eldin, three female journalists from independent Egyptian media outlet Mada Masr, to the Economic Court in Mansoura, Dakahlia Governorate on charges of insulting members of parliament (MPs) of the pro-government Mostaqbal Watan Party and misusing social media.
The case started when Mada Masr published a report on 31 August 2022 quoting sources within the Mostaqbal Watan Party as saying that state oversight agencies had implicated senior members of the party in “grave financial violations” that could result in their removal from their positions.
After the story appeared, dozens of complaints were brought by members of the Nation’s Future Party – which has a majority in the House of Representatives and supports President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – some accusing the journalists of publishing “false news”. If convicted, they would face between six months and two years in prison and fines of between 50,000 and 300,000 Egyptian pounds (1,500 and 9,200 euros).
On 7 September 2022, the prosecution summoned the three journalists, in addition to the website’s editor-in-chief Lina Atallah, for interrogation over at least 500 complaints that had been filed and that were included in Case No. 19 of 2022 (Cairo Appeals Investigations). The chief appeal prosecutor noted that up to 800 other complaints had not been included in the case.
The prosecution charged the journalists with spreading false news that would disturb public peace and harm the public interest, causing a disturbance via social media, and insulting and slandering the MPs of the Mostaqbal Watan Party. The prosecution also levelled an additional charge against Atallah for creating a website without a license. This is despite the fact that Mada Masr has submitted several requests for a license, but the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) has ignored all of them. During the investigation, the SCMR told the Public Prosecution for the first time that it had rejected the outlet’s licensing requests.
Complying with new media law, Mada Masr had requested the required licence for its website in 2018 but it had never received an official reply. On 28 February, just a week before the start of the trial, the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) – the media regulator created by President Sisi – finally confirmed that it is refusing to give Mada Masr a licence for its website, which has been blocked in Egypt since 2017.
After the interrogation concluded, the Public Prosecution released the journalists on bail of 20,000 Egyptian pounds for Atallah and 5,000 pounds for each of the other three journalists. Despite this, complaints did not stop, and the journalists have not previously been investigated or even notified of this complaint.
These measures against Mada Masr occur as part of the ongoing crackdown on independent media outlets and the intimidation of journalists to prevent them from performing their work freely in Egypt. This crackdown has included the continued blocking of news websites, the imprisonment of journalists, and the rejection of licensing requests for news websites. The official confirmation that Mada Masr is being denied a website licence is highly symbolic, because this independent news site is one of the last media outlets in Egypt not to have been brought under the state’s direct control, and because the Egyptian state has now openly accepted that it persecutes independent journalism and freedom of expression.
Egypt ranks 168 on RSF Press Freedom Index. It is one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. The hopes for freedom that sprang from the 2011 revolution now seem distant. Amid the government’s anti-terrorism fight, journalists are commonly charged with “membership in a terrorist organisation” and “dissemination of false information”. A 2018 law explicitly formalises surveillance of social network accounts with more than 5,000 followers. In addition, journalists have been subject to harsher sanctions since the Covid-19 crisis: “dissemination of false information” about the pandemic is punishable by two years in prison.