Egypt has blocked access to at least 21 news sites critical of the government, notably the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera, Huffington Post’s Arabic-language site HuffPost Arabi and the independent website Mada Masr.
The state-run news agency Mena announced late on Wednesday night that 21 websites had been blocked because they were “spreading lies” and “supporting terrorism”. The full list of banned sites was not provided, but Mena added that legal action against the outlets was forthcoming.
Al-Jazeera, which is partially owned by the Qatari royal family, has been frequently singled out as an enemy of the Egyptian state since the overthrow of former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Qatar previously backed Morsi’s leadership, prompting the arrest and detention of journalists from Al-Jazeera following his ouster.
Mada Masr was not reportedly included on this list, but access to its site inside Egypt is currently blocked without use of a virtual private network, or VPN. Mada Masr has long been seen as the final bastion of a free press operating in Egypt. Since its founding in 2013, the site provides rare critical coverage, in both Arabic and English. This has grown increasingly important under the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, amid a clampdown on political opposition and both local and international media. Egypt currently ranks 161 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.
“We learned about this when we started encountering some problems with the back end of our website,” said Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr. We thought it might just be the internet, as there have been internet problems across the board, on both 3G and wifi, in Egypt. But then we started getting reports from different places that the website was inaccessible,” she said.
Attalah added that the editorial staff is now anticipating a raid on the publication’s offices.
“The main focus now is to try and get the site back up online without it being blocked easily, but in the long run I don’t really know what this kind of fight means for our survival. My gut feeling is that this is not the end, and there’s a way to carry on. But I don’t know how exactly this will happen yet,” said Attalah.
The blocking of the 21 sites followed raids on several news sites in Cairo, even those with little history of critical coverage. On 2 May, plainclothes Egyptian police raided the offices of Al Borsa news site as well as the English-language news website Daily News Egypt, seizing computer equipment and questioning staff about their political coverage.
Egypt also this year blocked access to the encrypted messenger service Signal. The latest crackdown on an already strangled press comes amid the arrests of several members of leftist political parties earlier in the week. Up to 30 members of the Dostour and Bread and Freedom parties were reportedly arrested in raids across the country beginning on Sunday morning.
This was followed by the detention of the prominent lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali, known for his role in fighting the government’s decision to transfer two islands to Saudi Arabia. Ali will now stand trial on Monday accused of indecency. He is expected to run against Sisi in the presidential election in 2018, where Sisi is likely to seek a second term in office.
Attalah felt that the push against critical sites and any form of political opposition are connected. “I think that there’s a clear message that the authorities are trying to send to anyone involved in criticizing them,” she said.