Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special reporting project, “What Lies Beyond.” It is featuring students across 6 universities, reporting in-depth features and investigations on many of Egypt’s current events and issues.
By Islam Salahuddin
‘Mr Ayman, do you have any documents that prove what is supposed to be published in Al-Watan tomorrow?’
‘I am working in an organisation that has the right to reply.’
‘Okay. We will call the editor-in-chief.’
This call refers to a financial investigation conducted by Ayman Saleh, deputy editor of the economic section of privately-owned Al-Watan Newspaper. The report was supposed to take the lead in Al-Watan’s 11 March issue, with a deck headline reading “13 sovereign institutions do not pay their employees’ taxes”. The presidency, the Intelligence Agency, and the Interior and Defence Ministries were among the organisations on top of the list.
“I was working late at the newspaper until 7:30pm when I received this anonymous phone call by someone who asked me about my investigation. I understood there was a problem, but my reply was formal,” Saleh said.
In a picture that has gone viral on social media, the report was replaced by another one about the Economic Summit, that instead read “New Egypt to become a holder for investments and serious businessmen”. The first printed copies that published Saleh’s report were all shredded.
Saleh is among many journalists in Egypt who have been facing censorship, threats and arrests, amid a turbulent political and security situation over the past nearly two years.
Egypt was ranked among the worst countries for press freedom worldwide. It was ranked 68th out of 100 countries in the Freedom House indicators for press freedom from 2013 to 2015, and was ranked 158th out of 180 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2015.
Daily News Egypt met with a group of reporters, editors, and publishers to take an inside look on recent press censorship incidents.
“I do not know who called me. I asked him who he is and he replied it does not matter who I am,” Saleh said. “After that, I called the chief editor and he told me: ‘Do not worry, we are right!’ But when I came back the next day, I couldn’t find the two pages, and I knew that [the report] was replaced”.
According to Saleh’s narrative, the ban took place inside state-owned news institution Al-Ahram’s printing press. “The issue as a CD had actually reached Al-Ahram’s printing house and a huge number of copies were actually printed, up to 7,000 copies, and then Al-Ahram was ‘ordered’ to stop printing Al-Watan,” he said.
This was not the first ban that took place in Al-Watan Newspaper. Earlier, a feature was supposed to be published on the first page of the 6 February 2014 issue. A number of copies were printed, but instead of being published, they were similarly shredded.
The feature’s headline reads “EGP 30m in Al-Sisi’s financial statement, family source told Al-Watan”.
In another issue on 11 May, the newspaper published a special profile. On that day, the reader saw that the profile was entitled “Seven people stronger than the ‘reformation’”. But “reformation” was not the word that was supposed to be between the marks. The word that was supposed to be there was the name of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
These copies, as well as the original title, included an opinion article by Managing Editor Alaa Al-Ghetreify. The copies too were however shredded, and new copies were printed and distributed carrying the new title, and no sign of Al-Ghetriefy’s article was found.
“The article was chopped,” Alaa Al-Ghetreify said.
“An authority wanted that article out, and that is what happened,” he added. Regarding how he was told about the incident and who told him, he said: “I received a phone call about the incident,” and followed by saying that the phone call was from someone within the newspaper.
Despite his leading position at Al-Watan, Al-Ghetreify refused to give out further details on any related ban incidents in Al-Watan. Daily News Egypt tried to contact the editor-in-chief of Al-Watan, but he was unavailable for comment.
Press censorship is not recent, but goes back to Mubarak era; however the methodology was different and more direct.
Many legislative reforms have taken place on publishing procedures in Egypt. When the very first law was issued to regulate printing in 1931, it only required the publisher to have a financial guarantee, whereas five years later the requirements were amended, requiring the publisher to receive permission from the interior ministry.
The latest version of the publishing law, which is being used at present, was amended in 1937 to further tighten the requirements on journalists by including penalties on journalists who insult or expose secrets through newspapers.
The latest constitution draft ratified in 2014 stated that there is no detention allowed for any person charged on publishing “crimes”.
“Journalists are being charged for other broad crimes unrelated to publishing, such as harming public sentiment. It is the authorities plan to stay impartial from any kind of crackdown on creativity,” said Mahmoud Othman, a lawyer from the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). “Even if the laws and articles appear to ensure creativity, they are not activated.”
Khaled Al-Balshy, currently head of the freedom committee at the Press Syndicate and editor-in-chief of Al-Bedaiah Newspaper, said he faced multiple ban incidents throughout his career as an editor-in-chief for some newspapers before joining Al-Bedaiah.
On 4 March 2014, the third issue of Al-Wady Newspaper, which he used to run, was stopped. The issue contained a feature on the Muslim Brotherhood detainees’ life inside prisons, as well as two articles by renowned detained activists Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Maher, written by them while in detention.
“This was the newspaper management’s decision. They claimed it was due to financial woes,” Al-Balshy told Daily News Egypt.
According to Al-Balshy, nowadays the censorship game is reversed. Authorities do not ban content directly, but rather through newspaper management, to remain “impartial” in case any questions are raised over the ban. The management is the only party held responsible, but decisions often come from higher levels.
The game, however, was different during Mubarak’s days.
“When I was in charge of managing Al-Badeel’s content during the Shura Council fire incident in 2008, we made a special coverage about it, and Al-Ahram’s printing press decided to ban it and called the management to tell them to stop the issue,” he said.
Al-Badeel then switched to publishing online only in 2010. During that time, Al-Balshy said he also faced ban incidents. There were some Wikileaks documents about Mubarak and former intelligence chief Omar Soliman. “I received a phone call that said there are documents to be uploaded on Wikileaks, do not publish them,” Al-Balshy said.
“My reply was that I published seven documents at the same time already,” he added.
When asked about the identity of the caller, he said refused to give his name, but he said during Mubarak’s rule, it was usually an intelligence officer who made the call, and generally, “it is not just one person. I received phone calls from a lot,” he added.
However, according to Ebrahim Al-Ghamry, General Manager of Publications and Projects in Al-Ahram Institution, this is not necessarily true.
“There is no institution that gives me orders on whether to publish a newspaper or not, and I do not take any approval from any institution before printing a newspaper,” he said.
He further explained: “Al-Ahram prints about 80% of the journalistic prints in Egypt. The content reaches the printing press from the newspaper. When it comes to us, we perform the printing procedures. The content is none of my business at all. It is for the editor-in-chief to decide, and he is the one who should be questioned if the content surpasses the limits”.
According to Al-Ghamry, not all the copies of a newspaper go out at the same time. Some are released before the others, depending on the distribution plan. But there is no censorship whatsoever upon the printing press.
However, Abdel-Nasser Al-Zuhairy, editor-in-chief of Al-Masriya newspaper, had a different story to tell. He said he had three issues of the newspaper banned, and one of them was banned by one of the employees working under Al-Gahmry’s management.
The first issue included an interview with Khairat Al-Shater’s daughter. She was talking about the 30 June uprising, and described it as a “coup d’état” and also talked about President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, saying that he is a coup leader. Al-Masriya was then printing at Al-Akhbar’s printing press, which is also owned by the state.
“It was definitely rejected by national security,” Abdel-Nasser said. “Al-Akhbar told us that the newspaper was banned from being printed because of that interview.”
Al-Masriya then turned to Al-Ahram printing press, and put the interview inside the issue instead of the front page, and it was published.
The second ban was because of an interview with the former Intelligence Agency’s undersecretary Tharwat Gouda. Al-Zuhairy said he was told about the ban by the manager of the printing press, and particularly one of the employees working under the supervision of Al-Ghamry.
The third incident was for an article about Al-Sisi’s declining popularity due to the water and natural gas bills prices hikes. Also, another headline in the same issue was about firing the former chief of the Intelligence Agency. “The security institution objected to the first page, and honestly, we edited it,” Abdel-Nasser said.
News organisations’ ownership and affiliations generally do not affect the threat of state censorship, as similar incidents have already extended to major media organisations as well.
The Al-Masry Al-Youm issue of 1 October was banned due to the last article of an interview with the former officer Mohamed Refa’at Gebriel.
Ali Al-Sayed, then-chief editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm was not available for comment. However, Mohamed El-Hawary, Al-Masry Al-Youm’s lifelong production manager, concluded: “Generally speaking, banning decisions usually require permission from the Intelligence Agency.”