Egyptian intelligence services extend control over media
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is worried about the way Egyptian media outlets are being taken over by businessmen linked to the government and intelligence services. The regime’s domination of the media continues to grow and is even affecting pro-government media.
The latest takeover victim is Al Hayat, a TV channel founded in 2008 by Sayed el Badawi, the head of Al Wafd, a secular party that has usually supported President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military-backed government. Al Hayat was quietly taken over at the end of August.
The new owner’s identity has not yet been officially announced but several Egyptian media outlets have reported that it was acquired by Falcon, a successful Egyptian security company whose CEO is a former senior military intelligence officer and a former head of the radio and TV regulatory agency.
A few weeks before the sale, the authorities suddenly demanded that Al Hayat pay vast unpaid bills, which forced it to suspend broadcasting temporarily. Coincidentally or not, the financial pressure came shortly after Al Wafd’s representatives in parliament expressed their opposition to the government’s controversial plan to hand over two strategic islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia.
Intelligence agency embrace
Al Hayat is by no means the only privately-owned TV channel to fall into the lap of individuals close to the intelligence services. A former military intelligence officer, who was also an armed forces spokesman, took charge of Al Asema TV in January.
ONTV, a popular TV channel that supported the government while occasionally broadcasting critical comments, was taken over in May 2016 by Ahmed Abu Hashima, a powerful multi-millionaire steel magnate said to be close to military intelligence and to President Abdel- Fattah al-Sisi.
A month after the acquisition, the authorities expelled Liliane Daoud, a well-known ONTV programme presenter with a reputation for journalistic integrity. She was deportable because she has British and Lebanese dual nationality.
Docile media empire
As well as ONTV, Hashima bought four newspapers, Sout Al Omma, Ain, Dot Masr and Al Youm al Sabea, in 2016. He also took part in a state-supported monopoly attempt, including his group, as well as DMC which we will talk about later, and two other private channels, CBC and Al Nahar.
The regime’s iron hand was recently felt at Al Youm al Sabea. The editor threatened 30 of its journalists with unpaid leave at the end of July for openly opposing – in demonstrations, social network posts and petitions – the plan to cede Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.
Three of the journalists reported the threat. One of them, Medhat Safwat Mahfouz, said in a Facebook post that the editor had told that that “President Sisi is the newspaper’s new owner” and that it could therefore not continue to employ critical journalists.
Mahfouz and the other two, Abdel-Rahman Maklad and Maher Abdel-Wahed, have been officially fired but the rest have kept their jobs for the time being. Maklad wrote to President Sisi on 23 August to complain about his unfair dismissal and to ask him to intercede to get him reinstated.
Reached by telephone, Maklad told RSF that their dismissal could have been the result of overzealousness on the part of the editor or the owner, Hashima, or it could have been the result of direct pressure from the intelligence services.
A former Al Youm al Sabea journalist, Hani Salah el Deen, was the target of an anonymous article in one of Hashima’s other newspapers, Sout al Omma, in mid-August,
Well-connected new TV channel
Aside from acquisitions by businessmen linked to the government and the intelligence services, the government’s influence over the broadcast media landscape was also significantly enhanced in 2016 by the creation of a DMC, a major new TV network with a range of news, sports and entertainment channels.
Dubbed “the mouthpiece of the intelligence services” by some journalists and launched with a patriotic anthem and Koranic chants, DMC gets permission to film where other privately-owned TV channels are denied access. It is also known to broadcast interviews that are presented as exclusives but just reiterate the regime’s pro-security, anti-Muslim Brotherhood dogma.
As well as increasing its control over the traditional media, the regime is now blocking access to more and more websites. On 29 August, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), an Egyptian NGO, put the number of blocked sites at 424. They have included the RSF site since mid-August.
Egypt is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.