UN Human Rights Experts Raise Concerns Over Egypt’s Widening ‘Assault On Free Speech’ 

In late August United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, and Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aloáin, raised concerns with the Egyptian government’s attempts to counter “violent extremism.” They argued that the blocking of news websites and the unlawful detention of journalists was an “assault on freedom of expression” and looked more like “repression (rather) than counter-terrorism.”

Over the past year, more than 130 websites have been banned in Egypt. The government rationalized this drastic response by claiming the sites “support terrorism” and “spread lies.” However, the UN rapporteurs question this defence, pointing to the lack of evidence to support claims that the sites espoused “lies” or “terrorism.” Moreover, they are critical of the government’s lack of transparency and note that most of the websites were banned without warning.

Sites that have been blocked in Egypt include news organizations such as Al Jazeera, Mada Masr, and Al Watan. Websites of human rights groups including Reporters Without Borders and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information have also been shut down.

Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur’s added that the limitations on freedom of expression have taken many forms, “including the unlawful detention and harassment of journalists and activists.” Among those unlawfully detained is Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein who was incarcerated in December 2016 without charge. These attacks attempt to discourage journalists from reporting and create a culture of fear.

Limitations on journalism decrease the acceptable range of opinions in the media and means the media presents a homogeneous view of previously contested issues. These repressive new policies rob citizens of the ability to not only be informed, but to utilize their freedom of expression.

Whilst the actions were taken by the Egyptian government were certainly drastic and unwarranted, it was not the first time the government had prioritized the prevention of violence over the right of freedom of expression. In fact, Egypt has a long history of curtailing individual freedoms which eventually led to a social media uprising during the Arab Spring. While the events of 2011 led to the adoption of a new constitution, the political will to censor still exists.

Although censorship is officially banned through the constitution, politicians are able to curtail views through calling a ‘State of Emergency.’ Such a state was last called in July 2013, which saw a ban on public protesting and bestowed security forces with the ability to use lethal forces against demonstrators. Whilst this ‘State of Emergency’ was lifted in November 2013, the same repressive attitudes towards public dissent still exist. The recent ban of news websites still curtails individual freedom of expression without the justification of imminent danger.

Individuals from many of the affected websites have contacted the Ministry Communications, the Public Prosecutor, the Press Syndicate and the National Council for Media to file complaints but no responses have been received so far. It is clear that the actions of the Egyptian Government are a blatant assault on freedom of speech and extend far further than a simple attempt to counter violent extremism. If such actions continue, Egypt could find itself in a similar situation of turmoil that presented in 2011.

Tessa Pang