Egypt: Rights group slams Egypt for blocking news sites in digital censorship

Cairo, Egypt (PANA) - The Egyptian authorities have shifted their onslaught against media freedom to the digital sphere, blocking access to more than 40 news sites without justification in recent weeks, in an attempt to eliminate the country’s last remaining spaces for criticism and free expression, says Amnesty International.

At least 63 websites have been blocked in total since 24 May according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, including 48 news sites, the human rights group said.

Mada Masr, an independent news site which regularly published news and analysis deeply critical of the authorities was among the first to be blocked. Most recently on 11 June the Egyptian news sites Albedaiah, run by independent journalist Khaled al Balshy, Elbadil and Bawabit Yanair were blocked. Access to the global online publishing platform Medium was also cut off on 10 June.  

“The latest clampdown on digital media is further evidence of Egypt’s age-old police state tactics in motion. Even in the darkest days of the repressive Mubarak era the authorities didn’t cut off access to all independent news sites,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns director.

“With this move the Egyptian authorities seem to be targeting the few remaining spaces for free expression in the country. It shows just how determined the authorities are to prevent Egyptians from accessing independent reporting, analysis and opinion about Egypt. The authorities must immediately stop arbitrarily blocking news websites,” Bounaim said.

On 24 May, state media announced that Egyptian authorities had blocked a group of websites including the prominent independent news platforms Mada Masr, Daily News Egypt, Elborsa and Masr Al Arabia. The authorities failed to provide any evidence of illegal activity or to clarify the legal basis for the decision. Instead officials made vague statements to the media saying this was in connection with “publishing false information” and “supporting terrorism”.

It said on 25 May, Egyptian newspapers published reports citing a “sovereign agency” (a term usually used to refer to Egyptian intelligence agencies) justifying the move on the grounds of “combating terrorism” and accusing Qatar of supporting some of the blocked websites, again without providing evidence.

Amnesty International said it has reviewed the list of blocked websites. The majority are news sites but the list also includes sites where VPN and TOR, which can be used to access blocked sites, can be downloaded. Amnesty International was able to identify only one website connected to groups that use or advocate violence.

It said many of the sites that have been blocked had served as a refuge for Egypt’s remaining critical voices who no longer are allowed to appear on TV or in the print media, which have been firmly in the grip of the state since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power.

The independent news and analysis website Mada Masr is known for unflinchingly exposing human rights violations committed by the Egyptian authorities in recent years, including arbitrary detention, unfair trials, the crackdown on human rights NGOs, extrajudicial executions and the use of the death penalty.

The site’s editor-in-chief, Lina Attallah, told Amnesty International that she believes the site was blocked because it publishes well-researched investigations based on verified information.  “We publish what authorities don’t want people to read,” she said.

“The Egyptian government appears to be exploiting recent violent attacks by armed groups in the country to crack down on the remaining free space and silence critical voices. Once again the authorities are using national security grounds to justify outright repression,” said Bounaim.

“Instead of attacking critical and independent voices Egypt should respect the obligations enshrined in its own constitution and in international law not to impose arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and to protect the right of everyone to seek, receive and share information.”

Amnesty International said the government’s decision to block these websites also flouts Egypt’s constitution, which prohibits censorship of the media, except at times of war and military mobilization, and protects freedom of expression and press freedom both in print and digital formats. The constitution also upholds the right of all citizens to use telecommunication tools and methods.

The legal grounds and authority the government has used to block these sites is ambiguous and it remains unclear whether emergency law provisions were applied. There are, however, a number of Egyptian laws that can be used to censor the media and the internet, on the grounds of national security, the human rights watchdog said.
-0- PANA MA 14June2017

14 june 2017 05:32:21

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