As the coronavirus continues to spread in Egypt, the regime is stepping up efforts not to combat the pandemic, but to silence the country’s few remaining independent media voices. In recent weeks, security forces have detained Mada Masr Editor Lina Attalah, Al Manassa Editor Nora Younis, and several other writers, reporters, and publishers whom the regime somehow views as threats.
This latest wave of arrests is only one aspect of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s authoritarian campaign to exert full control over the public information sphere and stamp out any inklings of dissent. Al-Sisi’s regime also has
- issued scores of laws and regulations to ensure that media institutions and journalists only support the regime;
- set up institutions to put all media on one track and punish journalists who go off track;
- blocked websites that depart from the official narrative and jailed those who access such websites; and
- bought up, through the General Intelligence Service, most private media outlets and punished owners who refuse to sell.
As a result of all these repressive measures, the vast majority of Egyptian media is now subservient to the regime. Media outlets overwhelmingly praise al-Sisi and propagate the official line. Fact-checking of government statements, independent investigations of the state’s performance, and substantive policy critiques are virtually unheard of, beyond a few truly courageous outlets like Mada Masr (whose website is blocked by the government).
The pandemic has made the ramifications of this dismal media situation painfully clear. The media extols al-Sisi and the army, but in reality the government’s coronavirus response has been largely inept. Egypt has failed to institute effective lockdown measures, enforce social distancing and mask-wearing rules, or provide sufficient protective equipment to health workers. Anecdotal reports suggest that infection rates and deaths are far higher than officially reported, but the government is moving full-steam ahead toward a full reopening as cases are surging. Amidst this crisis, Egypt’s media avoids real scrutiny of government performance and dutifully conveys a stream of confusing and conflicting messages from the authorities. For instance, as one official says everything with the virus is under control, another says hospitals are full and cannot accept any more patients. The Minister of Health instructs Egyptians to go to the hospital if they show clear symptoms of COVID-19, but one of his deputies says that hospitals should “throw coronavirus patients out.”
The lack of reliable information about the actual situation in the country has only deepened public mistrust of the regime and made Egyptians susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy theories—compounding the severe public health challenge.
A free media is like a thermometer: it can detect infections, measure sickness, and sound the alarm that something—a human body, or Egyptian society—needs immediate care. A free media informs and educates the public, a need that is especially urgent in Egypt today. Through its arrests of journalists simply for doing their jobs, and other efforts to control information, the al-Sisi regime has done everything possible to break this thermometer, leaving Egyptians on their own to face the unknown.