Human rights organizations call on Egyptian authorities to cease restrictions on internet freedoms and digital rights

20 May, 2020

Following the rise in the number of patients with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Egyptian authorities have taken significant, large-scale measures in order to limit the spread of the virus. These include imposing a curfew on citizens for a specified number of hours, the full and temporary closure of some government departments, and reduction of the number of present employees in other departments and entities. However, the Egyptian government has persisted in its practices that restrict the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of information, as well as curtailing free use of the internet.

The increasing number of cases and deaths resulting from the outbreak of the pandemic has created challenges that require us to respect individuals’ right to access information and support online journalism, now more than ever. In fact, the right to acquire knowledge from various sources, one of our fundamental rights and freedoms, becomes associated with the right to life in the context of fighting the spread of COVID-19. Individuals cannot avoid behaviors harmful to their health, and cooperate with government efforts and societal initiatives that aim to minimize the effects of the epidemic, and ultimately survive, unless they are empowered and granted access to information related to the political, economic, and scientific aspects associated with the outbreak.

The signatory institutions of this statement condemn the Egyptian government’s continued restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and the right to internet freedom, stressing with emphasis that the Egyptian authorities’ commitment to ensuring free access to information from various sources does not stand in conflict with the fact that Egypt and the world are witnessing exceptional circumstances.

The Egyptian government blocked the “Daarb” website, which is affiliated with the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, on April 9, less than a month after its launch. The site is the third website with Egyptian journalist Khaled Al-Balshi as its editor-in-chief that the authorities have blocked. The other two websites under his editorial leadership that have been blocked were the “AlBedaiah” website, blocked in June 2017, and the “Katib” website, which was blocked only nine hours after it was launched in June 2018. It is noteworthy that the Katib site was an initiative of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, as authorities also blocked the organization’s website in August 2017.

On the same day that Daarb website was blocked, the “Mada” website posted on its Facebook page to say that the links provided by Mada to bypass the blocking were down. This brought the number of domains pertaining to Mada that Egyptian authorities have blocked to 22 links. Users also had difficulty accessing the website “AlManassa,” and operators of the website said in a statement published on its Facebook page, that “when trying to access the website via a VPN, the website worked normally, which we consider additional evidence that the website was blocked… We asked for an additional opinion from an expert in internet blocking technologies, and he confirmed that the website was indeed blocked, explaining that the last method of blocking is different from its precedents.”

Egyptian authorities are still blocking at least 572 websites, in addition to 31 alternative domains that operators of the blocked websites used as an alternative to the blocked URLs, which brings the total websites that have been blocked to 600 domains since May 2017, including digital media platforms, human rights initiatives, and civil society organizations.

The signatory institutions of this statement confirm that the continued blocking of these websites exacerbates the negative effects of people’s inability to move and communicate freely as a result of the partial curfew and the closure of some government departments and private-sector companies. These measures taken by the authorities to reduce the spread of the infection inherently limit the ability of individuals to access information, which makes access to online news websites and civil society organizations more important than ever. These sites provide individuals with access to government information and opinion on the one hand, and on the other, allow them to monitor government policies and assess their performance in facing this epidemic.

The signatory organizations also express their concern about the escalation of attacks and prosecution of independent media sites, as the public prosecutor’s office has accused Lina Atallah, journalist and editor-in-chief of “Mada Masr,” of photographing military installations without permission at Tora Prison, detaining her. This arrest and detention took place while Atallah was reporting on the activities of Dr. Leila Suef, mother of the jailed human rights advocate Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been on a hunger strike due to the recent ban on visits. The authorities wrote up the incident at Tora prison, and referred Atallah to the public prosecutor’s office for investigation. She was then released on bail for 2,000 pounds in the pending case.

During the curfew and calls for self-isolation at home during the coronavirus outbreak, some social media apps have gained wide popularity in Egypt, especially after artists and celebrities began posting content using these tools, and this has expanded the base of users. Egyptian authorities have subsequently arrested people for using these applications to post videos. The institutions that signed this statement call on the Egyptian authorities to stop imposing restrictions on free use of the internet and social media applications, and arresting people who are simply exercising their rights and freedoms online.

Authorities arrested one such user of these applications, Haneen Hosam, a student at Cairo University, for publishing a video promoting use of the application “Likee” for financial gain. Hosam was also referred for investigation by legal affairs at the Archeology Department at Cairo University, where she is a student. In an official statement, the university stated that it “referred the girl to legal affairs to investigate her for behaving in a way that contravenes public morals and university values and traditions.” A statement issued by the public prosecutor’s office indicated that charges were brought against Hosam in relation to undermining family principles and values in Egyptian society; human trafficking; exploiting girls in activities that are contrary to the principles and values of society for profit; and taking advantage of a weak economy to exploit girls’ need for money. The public prosecutor’s office ordered that Haneen Hosam be held in custody.

The accusations are based on articles of the 2014 Constitution which establishes a direct link between the crimes of prostitution and human trafficking as one unit. Indeed, this is what eclipsed the role of state institutions for women as well as women’s rights organizations in such situations, even as these organizations are needed to provide the necessary care and support.

At the same time, authorities have arrested the Egyptian artist Sama Al-Masry on charges of posting indecent pictures and videos on her social media accounts, as well as publicly committing explicit immoral acts, and inciting immorality and prostitution, as well as acting against community principles in Egypt. The public prosecutor’s office ordered that Sama Al-Masri be held in custody.

In the same context, a judge in the north Al-Muqaddah Court in Abbasiya decided to renew the imprisonment of Mawadah Adham, a Tik Tok star, for 15 days pending further investigation carried out by the public prosecutor’s office, which had previously ordered her imprisonment for four days in order to secure the investigation. They have accused her of violating family principles and values in Egyptian society, and of establishing, managing, and using websites and accounts on social media platforms with the aim of committing and facilitating the commission of that crime.

It is noteworthy that applications such as Likee have been subject to criticism for matters related to privacy, protection of data, and endangerment of children who use them. However, the arrests of Haneen Housem and Sama Al-Masry are not related to these issues.

The signatory institutions confirm that the way Egyptian authorities are handling the cases of Sama Al-Masry and Haneen Hossam reveal several problems related to protection of digital rights and the freedom of expression, and show that the authorities are using moral discourse to violate these rights.

There are many laws in Egypt that restrict these rights and freedoms. For example, the Law on Combating Information Technology Crimes and the Law on the Regulation of Media and Press, the articles of which grant powers to the judicial authorities, police agencies, and the Supreme Media Council to block websites and accounts for national security reasons, or in cases when users are accused of publishing or broadcasting false news or content that constitutes slander or libel of people or insults Abrahamic religions or religious beliefs.

Authorities also use the Egyptian penal code, the emergency law, and the anti-terrorism law to press charges against internet activists, bloggers, journalists, and media professionals, under charges of spreading false news, joining or promoting a terrorist group, or abusing a means of communication. The articles of these laws allow prohibiting the use of certain means of communication, or preventing their acquisition or attainment, by monitoring and recording conversations and messages, either through wiretapping or via wireless communications, or conducted through other modern means of communication, and by recording and photographing what happens in private spaces, on communication or information networks, and on websites, all in addition to the monitoring of correspondence, email messages, publications, parcel mail, and telegrams.

The signatory institutions also expressed their concerns about the public prosecutor’s call to expand legislative policies related to the internet, and the possible consequent restrictions on the freedom of expression or violation of the privacy of users of online applications. These concerns arise due to indications such as the application of the Law on Combating Information Technology Crimes, which imposes prison sentences and fines for moral offenses that are hard to define or discern. It is difficult to establish whether crimes under this law were actually perpetrated, since it would be difficult to define the crime of violating family principles or values in Egyptian society.

The signatory institutions consider the internet one of the last spaces for Egyptians to express their views freely, in light of deteriorating political, social and human rights conditions. They also see the cases against Haneen Hossam and Sama Al-Masry as manifesting the insistence of Egyptian security and judicial authorities on infringing the freedom to use the internet and enjoy the freedom of expression online, just as they have insisted on interfering with the right to demonstrate, and on limiting the freedom of press and other freedoms.

The signatory institutions also affirm that the Egyptian Constitution grants individuals the necessary legal protection to guarantee their fundamental rights and freedoms, and these are safeguards that the authorities should take more seriously. They must also consider that individuals’ enjoyment of these freedoms should not lead to their being prosecuted under broad and vague terms such as preserving societal values, customs, and traditions.

The signatory institutions of the statement call for a comprehensive review of laws that restrict rights and freedoms along with the elimination of phrases and terms that threaten individual and public freedoms, whether at the intellectual and creative level, or at the level of civil and political actions and community participation. Finally, the signatory institutions demand that Egyptian authorities put an end to policies and practices that restrict fundamental rights and freedoms, especially those related to internet freedom and the freedom of access to information. They also demand that authorities lift the block on the affected websites and call for the release of prisoners detained for cases related to the freedom of expression, internet freedom, and social media.

Signatories:

Masaar ( Technology and Law Community)

Access Now

Witness MENA

SMEX

Freedom of Thought and Expression Law Firm (AFTE)

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information – ANHRI

Democratic Transition And Human Rights Support (DAAM)