Egyptian watchdog warns media to ‘take care’ in coverage of protests

Updated September 23, 2019

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SUEZ: This combination of pictures shows a confrontation between Egyptian forces and protesters in Al Arbaeen Square of this port city on Sunday. — AFP
SUEZ: This combination of pictures shows a confrontation between Egyptian forces and protesters in Al Arbaeen Square of this port city on Sunday. — AFP

CAIRO: Egypt’s media authority warned journalists on Sunday that it was monitoring coverage to ensure they abide by “professional codes” amid a rare burst of protests against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The warning came hours after the latest small protest was dispersed by police in clouds of tear gas.

Dozens of people including children marched on Saturday evening in the port city of Suez, calling for el-Sissi to step down, three witnesses said. Police “pursued the people in the streets ... there was lots of gas,” one resident said.

The protest came after rare anti-government demonstrations in several Egyptian cities late on Friday. Those too were quickly broken up by police. But they marked a startling eruption of street unrest, which has been almost completely silenced the past years by draconian measures imposed under el-Sissi.

The government effectively banned all public protests in 2013 shortly after el-Sissi led the military’s overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president. Since then, anyone who dared take to the streets was quickly arrested and received years-long prison sentences.

In its statement issued on Sunday, the State Information Service, which accredits foreign media representatives, It said it has “carefully monitored” the coverage of the protest.

It called for reporters to “strictly abide by professional codes of conduct” and for media to provide a space for “viewpoints to be presented in an equal manner and that includes the viewpoint of the State or who represents it.” The SIS has issued similar statements in the past surrounding sensitive events.

It also warned that “social media outlets should not be considered as sources of news,” because of the numerous “fake accounts and fabrications.” False information about protests have appeared on social media, including videos of protest from years past presented as if they were happening live.

But social media have also been vital for getting out authentic videos of protests, since they are the only venue not dominated by the government. Nearly all newspapers and television channels in Egypt are under the sway of the government or military and have given almost no coverage to the protests. In recent years, Egypt has imprisoned dozens of reporters and occasionally expelled some foreign journalists.

In the wake of Friday’s protests, security forces have reportedly arrested dozens of people in Cairo and other parts of the country, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a non-governmental organisation.

The new protests emerge from an online campaign, led by an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile who has presented himself as a whistleblower against corruption. His calls for demonstrations come at a time when Egypt’s lower and middle classes have been badly squeezed by years of economic reforms and austerity measures.

The businessman, Mohammed Ali, has put out a series of viral videos claiming corruption by the military and government. His videos inspired others often wearing masks to hide their identity to post their own videos relating experiences with alleged corruption or mismanagement.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2019