from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Egypt: Prison by the Numbers

July 6, 2015

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Question: What do you call an Egyptian journalist who reports numbers about terrorism that differ from those offered by the government?

Answer: a prisoner.

That will soon be the case, when Egypt adopts a new law forbidding publishing "false news or statements about terrorist operations in contradiction to official statements." There is no parliament in Egypt right now, so all that is needed to turn the draft into law is President Sisi’s approval. The new law would provide sentences of two years in prison.

Think about that for a moment. After some terrorist attack, the Army says no soldiers were killed and 10 terrorists were. But journalists know that’s a cover-up, because in the incident the soldiers were surprised, and ill-prepared, and performed poorly, and actually there were 10 soldiers killed and zero terrorists. Do Egyptians have the right to know this? Does the government have the right to squelch the information--by threatening to jail journalists who report accurate information? Notice that this new law defines "false information" as any information different from the official version.

Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind defended the draft statute, and his words are really worth reading:

There was no choice but to impose some standards. The government has the duty to defend citizens from wrong information. I hope no one interprets this as a restriction on media freedoms. It’s just about numbers. If the army says 10 died, don’t report 20.

I love the part about defending citizens from wrong information. We’re used to this in communist regimes and we’ve all read our Orwell. But this is a government, in Egypt, that gets lots of Western (including American) support for its battle against terror. The problem is, we actually want them to win the battle against terror, not to lie about it and imprison anyone who tells the truth about how they are doing.

This kind of law is, sadly, another sign of the direction in which the Egyptian regime of Gen. Sisi is heading. Americans leaders who want to fight Islamist terrorism are naturally sympathetic to governments that claim to do so, and that are indeed under terrorist attack. But eliminating freedom of the press is not a step toward crushing terrorism, and in fact it is harmful to the effort. The Egyptian public deserves to know how its government is performing, and Army press releases are not a reliable source of information.

Same goes for Americans, who are contributing $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. We, and the Congress, have the right to know how the battle is going, how the Egyptians are performing, what kind of aid or training might be more effective, and whether the aid should be continued. It will be a lot harder to find out when Egypt’s best journalists are in prison, in exile, or silenced by fear.