On May 24th, state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that access to 21 news websites was blocked due to their “spreading lies” and “supporting terrorism”, citing the statement of an anonymous “high-ranking official”.
The websites included the Qatari Al-Jazeera, among other sites allegedly operated by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group, as well as several Egyptian news websites.
The official authority blocking the websites remains anonymous.
Up to 129 websites have been blocked since then, reported the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
While journalists and activists considered the action as a violation to press freedom, and even a violation to articles of the Egyptian constitution stipulating the right to access to information, the action had further impacts.
Walking into the newsroom of Masr Al-Arabia following the blocking, one finds only a handful of journalists—around eight—while it was usually the workplace of more than 40 journalists, described a former Masr Al-Arabia journalist, who preferred anonymity, (later referred to in this article as MM).
After more than four years of working for Masr Al-Arabia, MM was let go, along with more than 50% of the websites’ staff following the blocking. MM explained that the administration told journalists that their contract would change from full-time to freelance, which they considered to be dismissal.
Since the blocking, the Masr Al-Arabia website and Al-Mesryoon website and weekly newspaper announced that dozens of journalists were let go, due to the financial issue that resulted following the blocking.
About half of the staff working for Masr Al-Arabia was let go, while the rest agreed to receive half of their salaries due to the issue, Editor-in-Chief of Masr Al-Arabia Adel Sabry said.
During an open discussion about the issue at the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies (ECPPS), Sabry said that the blocking of websites affected more than 600 journalists, whether by receiving lower salaries or dismissal from institutions.
Joining the same discussion was Fathi Magdi, Al-Mesryoon managing editor, who said that the blocking did not only result in a direct financial loss, but also had an indirect impact, as it influenced the interest of investors and advertisers—hence, a bigger financial loss.
35 journalists of Al-Mesryoon were let go almost two weeks later because of the blocking, former journalist at Al-Mesryoon Hussein Al-Husseini told Daily News Egypt.
“This is not arbitrary dismissal; this is entirely due to a financial issue,” Magdi said, explaining that the 35 journalists—one third of the staff—were not members of the Press Syndicate and might have been deprived of their financial rights due to the financial issue.
On the other hand, MM claimed that Masr Al-Arabia had already intended to let go of a number of journalists even before the website being blocked.
“Before the website was blocked, the administration announced that several journalists would be let go, and [the administration] have been building up to this decision for a long time, saying things like ‘we have too much manpower’, which is not true,” MM said.
“Almost a year and a half ago, about 40 journalists were dismissed; although, they were some of the best reporters we had; but the editor-in-chief claimed that they were let go for ‘security concerns’,” he added.
Over the past two years, Masr Al-Arabia reportedly dismissed dozens of journalists. In February 2016, 20 journalists said Masr Al-Arabia dismissed and deprived them of financial dues, state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported, which Sabry described as “allegations contrary to the reality”. And in October 2015, a section editor for the website reportedly confirmed that one third of the staff, about 35 journalists were dismissed, who were proved to be affiliated to other media institutions, according to local media.
Meanwhile, Sabry and Magdi said that they were doing all efforts to solve the issue of the website blocking.
“We went to the syndicate, the SCMA; we even filed a lawsuit against the minister of communications as the institution responsible for carrying out the decision; however, we have not reached anything yet,” Sabry said, asserting that the state should have announced the authority responsible for such action.
Since its formation, the SCMA is assigned to generally regulate media and press affairs.
“We do not know which state institution is responsible for the block, but the responsible institution to solve this issue is the SCMA; however, the chairman of the SCMA, Makram Mohammed Ahmed, never sides with journalists, but rather always sides with the state,” Magdi said.
They both blamed the Press Syndicate for the impacts of the websites being blocked, as they said the syndicate did not take any action towards them.
The head of the Press Syndicate, Abdel Mohsen Salama, said in several press statements that the syndicate would support websites if proved that they were not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group.
Ahmed also praised the blocking of websites, saying that Egypt should have blocked the websites affiliated with terrorist groups long ago.
Magdi and Sabry condemned the statements of Salama and Ahmed, saying that their websites never published extremist content, but it was rather perceived as such for publishing content that might be in opposition to the state.
Secretary of the Press Syndicate Hatem Zakaria told Daily News Egypt that he and Salama discussed the issue with Makram Mohammed Ahmed and agreed that there would be an investigation into the case to examine the issues facing these websites.
However, Zakaria questioned the announcements of dismissing journalists from the two websites, adding, “what we know is that they [websites’ administration] are using the dismissal as a form of pressure on the syndicate.”
According to Zakaria’s speculations, the websites announced the dismissal of dozens of journalists in order to force journalists to protest the situation of blocking to the syndicate, hence, forcing the syndicate to pressure the Supreme Council of Media to interfere and lift the blocks.
The dismissed journalists of Al-Mesryoon did not take any action towards the incident, nor have they filed complaints to the syndicate, Al-Husseini said.
Moreover, among the dismissed journalists of Masr Al-Arabia were members of the Press Syndicate; however, MM said they preferred not to file complaints at the syndicate, as this was “the administration’s purpose of the dismissal.”
“They [administration] want us to protest our dismissal as a result of being blocked, in order for the syndicate to help lift the block,” MM explained.
“The council has the authority to withdraw the license of any media [platform], but we do not want to escalate the issue,” Zakaria said.
“We [the syndicate] want to solve the issue, and enact the required legislation to regulate the work [of websites]…and to protect the rights of journalists,” he added.
The parliament is currently working on the second media law, after the first was enacted in December 2016, which established the SCMA. The second law would be concerned with regulating practicing media and journalism.
As for the meantime, Sabry and Magdy asserted that the sustainability and continuation of their websites have become very difficult amid the lack of action by the syndicate.
“If the situation remains the same, Masr Al-Arabia will be on its way to closure,” Sabry said.
Sabry and Magdi perceived the entire issue as a matter of press freedom rather than an issue facing the two particular websites. “Press freedom has not passed through a worse phase than now,” Magdi said.
Both websites are currently operated by a number of journalists still in office, even though the block is still in effect. According to Sabry’s and Magdi’s statements, Masr Al-Arabia is operating with 50% of its staff, while Al-Mesryoon is working with 30-40%.