Foreign journalists received mixed signals from the State Information Service (SIS) on Monday, when its Press Center issued a statement stipulating a week’s notice for any requests or queries by journalists before publication, before quickly issuing another statement a few hours later.
“When you request information or clarifications from the official authorities, kindly send your request as least a week – for set up – before the date of publication or broadcast order to set up a guarantee of your objective media coverage,” the Press Center instructed journalists.
Following immediate backlash on social media, the Press Center issued another statement shortly after, clarifying that a week’s notice would only be required to request an interview with “one of the representatives of the official authorities.”
“For the data and explanations that are requested in accordance with the nature of the event and the timing of its occurrence, the press center foreword [sic] it directly to the competent authorities and to respond to reporters,” the statement read.
Foreign coverage came under the SIS’s scrutiny once again this week arguably as a result of a tug of war between the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and David Kirkpatrick, The New York Times’ Cairo Bureau Chief and Mideast Correspondent.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid questioned the credibility of the newspaper on his Twitter account, when it published a story on Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-US citizen who was recently released and sent back to the US after approximately two years of solitary confinement and 490 days on hunger strike.
Abu Zeid said the article was “one-sided and only takes his testimony into account.”
“It’s unacceptable and unreasonable for [Kirkpatrick] to ask for info hours before publication, one night before weekend, and expect a timely response,” Abu Zeid wrote on Twitter.
In response, Kirkpatrick said that they had contacted the Ministry of Interior, giving it over 24 hours to respond before publication, tweeting, “That request was 27 hours before online publication and 35 hours before print deadline.”
Kirkpatrick declined to comment to Mada Masr.
The journalist is no stranger to run-ins with the state. Last October he was involved in a spat with state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, which argued that rejects “the political discourse since June 30 and vehemently defends the terrorist organization,” referring to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
The SIS is notorious for issuing statements regulating Egypt’s coverage in foreign media, regularly berating correspondents for allegedly turning a blind eye to terrorist activity and violence caused by the Muslim Brotherhood since former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013.
Following the assassination of Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat in a car bombing in June, the agency issued a statement that blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, and also castigated the international press for turning a blind eye to the violent acts of the group.
The “obnoxious crime attests again to several facts that some international media outlets would like to disregard or connive at,” the statement proclaimed. International media outlets “lack a clear vision about the real battle that Egypt is waging against terrorism,” and are reluctant to acknowledge “the terrorist nature of this group who hates the Egyptian people and denies them their right to life, progress and stability,” the SIS continued.
In several instances, the SIS has questioned foreign media’s objectivity, and accused it of publishing “fallacious reports” and distorting the facts.
In July, the SIS formed a website dubbed Fact Check Egypt, in reaction to Egyptians’ “continued frustration with media coverage about the country when factual inaccuracies and dubious methodologies are found in news reports.”
According to a statement by SIS, the website is aimed at fact checking media coverage about Egypt and publishing reports about findings “to help improve news media literacy, accuracy and maintaining the highest standards of media ethics.”
The statement claims it ascribes to ethical standards described in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code.
The SPJ describes itself as a broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.
However, according to SPJ’s Ethics Committee Chairman Andrew Seaman, neither the SPJ nor its ethics committee “are aware of any institutions within Egypt attempting to use the Code of Ethics to restrict or regulate journalists and their works.”
He said the SPJ and its ethics committee hope the code is not abused.
“While we hope journalists around the world follow and are allowed to follow the Society’s Code, using the document to regulate behavior is the antithesis of its purpose and spirit,” he told Mada Masr.
Seaman cited the code which says that “It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium.”
While the Arabic statement about the blog launch included strong criticism of foreign media, the English statement was brief, serving only to introduce the blog as a forum for exchange of opinions and providing the URL.
Arms of the Egyptian state have also on occasion issued specific instructions to foreign media. In July, following prolonged clashes between militants and the military in North Sinai, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a press conference where it handed out guidelines instructing foreign journalists to refrain from using “religious or faith based terminology” when describing terrorist groups.
The Foreign Ministry advised international press to stay away from using terms such as “Islamists,” “jihadists”, “Islamic State,” and “fundamentalists” while covering terrorist attacks.
The ministry offers alternatives to be used by media outlets when referring to terrorist groups, including “slaughterer, executioner, assassins, slayers, destroyers, eradicators.”