Egypt’s State Information Services (SIS) criticized the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for publishing a report on the state of political and social rights in Egypt in a statement released on Saturday.
SIS’ criticism of the London-based media organization constitutes the most recent example in what has become the government authority’s routine practice of discrediting foreign media outlets’ Egypt coverage.
On February 23, the BBC published a five-part report on social, political, and human rights during President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s first term in office, which will come to an end this year following the upcoming presidential election slated for March.
The report by journalist Orla Guerin, titled “The Shadow Over Egypt,” details stories of torture, forced disappearances and activist arrests, as told through the eyes of victims’ family members, lawyers and human rights activists. Guerin’s report was accompanied by a short documentary on the same subject titled Crushing Dissent in Egypt, which aired on BBC World and BBC News Channel on February 24 and 25.
SIS, a state agency under the jurisdiction of Egypt’s president, criticized the use of anonymous sources in accounts of torture and rape in the BBC’s reporting. “This [practice] casts heavy shadows of doubt over the credibility of the whole story,” the statement claimed.
However, Rasha Abdulla, a professor and former chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, told Mada Masr that, “in general, anonymous sources may undermine the credibility of a story. However, journalists often have to resort to them.”
“In fact, some of the sources used by the journalist did not have to be quoted anonymously, as they said what several other sources would have said on record. However, even in this case, the story does not lose its credibility. In addition, most of what was narrated by the sources was supported with evidence, even if SIS opted to doubt the story,” added Abdullah.
One of the victims highlighted in the report is 23-year-old Zubeida, who was allegedly disappeared by Egyptian authorities for the second time in April of last year. In Crushing Dissent in Egypt, Zubeida’s mother says she has no doubt the police took her daughter away. “Neighbours told us that armed and masked men came in a police vehicle and took her away in a minibus. They had been to our old house, inquiring about her, several times.”
SIS criticized the journalist’s use of the victim’s mother as a source, arguing that the mother had not personally witnessed Zubeida’s kidnapping, and the family’s neighbors were not interviewed in the report to corroborate the mother’s claim.
The Saturday statement also denied that the Egyptian police force uses masked personnel, with the exception of special forces.
In her report, Guerin claims that “most of the disappeared are tortured before reappearing in custody weeks or months later, facing terrorism charges,” which SIS also refuted in its Saturday statement.
SIS’ statement drew upon activist Alaa Abd El Fattah’s case, which features in the BBC report, as proof against the torture allegations leveled against Egyptian authorities. According to SIS, the fact that Abd El Fattah’s family did not mention during their BBC interviews that the activist was abused or tortured while in police custody, despite “[Guerin’s] description of [Abdel Fattah] as one of the January 2011 [uprising’s] symbols, making him, according to her claim, an enemy of the state,” renders the report’s overarching torture allegations invalid.
SIS also alleges that its representatives attempted to reach out to the BBC journalist twice to obtain more information on Zubeida and her family, but the journalist did not respond.
Reaching out to Zubeida’s neighbors is the prosecutor’s responsibility, not a journalist’s, noted Cairo University professor and activist Laila Soueif on her Facebook account on Sunday, adding that the prosecutor should have already heard the neighbors’ accounts as part of the police investigation.
Soueif, who is also Abd El Fattah’s mother, pointed out that Zubeida’s case was reported to the police several months ago, therefore all the information SIS wished to inquire about is already available in the police report.
“In the meantime, [SIS’] statement completely ignores the story of Ibrahim Metwally, whose son forcibly disappeared four years ago, prompting him to establish an association for the families of the forcibly disappeared,” she added.
In a statement addressed to SIS head Diaa Rashwan, Abd El Fattah’s sister, Mona Seif, also responded to the state agency’s use of her brother’s case to discredit accounts of torture in Egypt. Seif said that Alaa’s case was used as “a single example to deny a crime that affects thousands of Egyptian citizens, most of whom are marginalized and unknown.”
Seif referenced the latest report issued by local rights NGO Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence to support her argument that the practice of torture in Egypt is systematic.
Seif’s statement proceeds to address SIS’ claim that the BBC journalist “ignored the positive aspect in regards to authorities’ practice of human rights when the prison allowed Abdel Fattah and his sister Sanaa to attend their father’s funeral in 2014,” by pointing out that the BBC report did, in fact, mention that Alaa and Sanaa were briefly released from prison to bury their father.
Alaa’s sister clarified, however, that both her siblings were serving sentences in “unjust political cases” during a time when their father “was deprived of them in the last days of his life.”
In response to an official request for comment, a BBC spokesperson told Mada Masr: “We stand by our report and are confident it is a thorough and accurate investigation which adheres to the BBC’s editorial values.”
The BBC gave SIS and a number of other Egyptian government departments “ample opportunity to respond to the allegations but they chose not to,” the media outlet stated.
The SIS statement also accused Guerin’s of including her own personal opinions in the report.
“[Guerin’s report] is not traditional journalism. There are more creative and freestyle forms of journalism, such as long-form and narrative journalism. In this case, the writer opted for long-form and used her own accounts of events, along with interviews. I believe that what was criticized by SIS’ statement is the part where she recounts what she witnessed, and this is what is called narrative journalism, which is, of course, professionally acceptable. The broadcast that coincided with the story shows more of her account,” said Abdullah.
In reference to a quote by a liberal activist who Guerin interviewed in 2014 before Sisi became president, SIS said “it seemed to be her personal opinion.”
Abdullah, however, believes that Guerin “does not say her personal opinion, rather she recounts what she saw.”
“The reporter’s account is also supported by footage in the broadcast version [of the report], for example, when she says that she saw police forces shoot at protesters, she shows footage of protesters being shot,” said Abdullah.
SIS also took issue with the BBC journalist’s claim that she was threatened with a gun by a police officer as she was filming. According to SIS’ statement, this contradicts another account Guerin provided of a separate incident where she was arrested and released a few hours later. The fact that the journalist was released unharmed, and that she was able to film all over the country, proves that Guerin was not harassed by the police, according to SIS.
“The fact that she [Guerin] was ever arrested, even if she was later released, is in and of itself a problem,” Abdullah notes.
SIS, with which all foreign media professionals must register in order to operate in Egypt, closely follows all foreign media coverage of Egypt and has issued a number of statements in recent months criticizing media reports on the state of human rights in Egypt, often claiming that they are “not credible” and “biased.”
In January, the New York Times published a controversial report on a series of leaked recordings, which allegedly feature an Egyptian officer convincing prominent media personalities to express tacit acceptance of United States President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December of last year. In response, SIS issued a statement affirming that “Egypt’s stances on international issues are not inferred from the alleged leaks of an unknown person, but are expressed by the president of the state and the foreign minister and official statements and actions.”
SIS also condemned coverage of the Wahat Road attack in October 2017, taking particular issue with the discrepancy between the Interior Ministry’s death toll, and that which was reported by a number of foreign media organizations. SIS accused Reuters and the BBC of “inaccurate coverage” and demanded they retract their allegedly overstated casualty figures.
In another example of SIS’ denunciation of foreign press coverage on Egypt, a November 2017 press conference saw Rashwan accusing foreign news agencies of being “evasive” for not using the terms “terrorism” and “terrorists” in their coverage of armed militant attacks in the country. Rashwan’s comments followed an attack by dozens of armed militants on a mosque in the Rawda village of North Sinai, which claimed the lives of more than 300 people.
The original version of this story misquoted Professor Rasha Abdulla’s comments on the evidence included in the BBC report, which were corrected on March 1.