Human rights activists have criticised the adoption of a new law that gives the state powers to block social media accounts and penalise journalists held to be publishing fake news. Under the law passed on Monday social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers on sites such as Twitter and Facebook will be treated as media outlets, which makes them subject to prosecution for publishing false news or incitement to break the law.
The Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, headed by an official appointed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will supervise the law and take action against violations. The bill prohibits the establishment of websites without obtaining a license from the Supreme Council and allows it to suspend or block existing websites, or impose fines on editors. The law, which takes effect after it is ratified by Sisi, also states that journalists can only film in places that are not prohibited, but does not explain further.
Press freedom concerns
Supporters of Sisi say the law is intended to safeguard freedom of expression and it was approved after consultations with judicial experts and journalists. But critics say it will give legal basis to measures the government has been taking to crack down on dissent and extend its control over social media. Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the vague wording of the law allows authorities to interpret violations and control the media.
“That power of interpretation has been a constant powerful legal and executive tool that was used to justify excessive aggressive and exceptional measures to go after journalists,” he told Reuters. Reporters Without Borders ranks Egypt 161 out of 180 countries worldwide for press freedom, describing it as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”. Hundreds of news sites and blogs have been blocked in recent months and around a dozen people have been arrested this year and charged with publishing false news, many of them journalists or prominent government critics.