Former Al-Masry Al-Youm editor in chief Mohamed Saleh and eight of the newspaper’s journalists were released from custody on Thursday after being questioned by State Security Prosecution on charges of disseminating false news in connection to the newspaper’s coverage of the 2018 presidential elections.
On April 10, two weeks after the newspaper ran a front-page story with a headline that read “State mobilized voters on last day of election,” State Security Prosecution summoned Saleh and Al-Masry Al-Youm journalists Ghada Abdel Hafez, Hamdy Qassem, Abdel Hakim al-Guindy, Mohamed Khalil, Emad al-Shazly, Magdy Aboul Enein, Mohamed Fayed and Hend Ibrahim for questioning, which took place on Thursday, April 19.
The story, which was published by Al-Masry Al-Youm on March 29, reported on public employees offering incentives to citizens in hopes of pushing them to the polls to vote for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s second term.
The NEA filed an official complaint on March 31 regarding the piece, and public prosecutor referred a complaint filed by pro-state lawyer Samir Sabry about Al-Masry Al-Youm’s coverage to State Security Prosecution on April 1.
Egypt’s Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) accused the newspaper of publishing inaccurate coverage of the elections, imposing the newspaper a hefty fine of LE150,000 and ordering it to issue an apology to the National Elections Authority.
The SMRC also referred the editor in chief of Al-Masry Al-Youm and journalists from the newspaper to be investigated by the Journalists Syndicate. Mahmoud Kamel, a member of the Journalists Syndicate’s board, previously told Mada Masr that the board would evaluate the non-binding decision to refer the staff members to investigation. He criticized the body for handing out punishments without having first conducted an investigation, adding that the council, which was formed last year, currently has no regulations in place outlining penalties for the media outlets it regulates.
The journalists have yet to be questioned by the syndicate, and since an investigation by the syndicate is intended as an alternative to a criminal investigation, according to Kamel, there may be no need for it to take place if a complaint is being addressed by prosecutors.
Al-Masry Al-Youm retracted its headline the same day it was published, replacing it in the second print and online with one that reads: “Initial polling indicators show Sisi crushing Moussa.” The newspaper has since apologized for what it calls “misleading wording,” asserting that the headline was meant to have a positive connotation.
In an editorial published on April 1, Al-Masry Al-Youm stated that “mobilization” referred to the means by which governments all over the world seek to encourage political participation, and affirmed the support of the privately owned newspaper’s staff and owners for Sisi and the Egyptian state.
In addition to the apology, Al-Masry Al-Youm’s board removed Saleh from his position as editor-in-chief, replacing him with journalist Hamdy Rizk, but stated that Saleh would continue to write for the paper and retain his current salary. Abdel Latif al-Menawy, a member of the newspaper’s board, also apologized in a televised interview with “DMC’s Evening” host Osama Kamal for what he called “an inaccurate choice of words that didn’t take into consideration professional, political and popular factors.” Menawy said that the incident is being investigated internally.
In an unexplained development, the newspaper’s readers have been facing difficulties accessing Al-Masry Al-Youm’s website since April 4.
Fatma Serag, lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Mada Masr that during Thursday’s interrogation, the prosecution asked the eight reporters being questioned about the sources of the information they used in the story. They all insisted the information was from official sources, Serag said, and showed investigators text messages they exchanged with media departments of government offices in several Egyptian governorates.
The reporters were released that day, a few hours before Saleh was released on LE10,000 bail.
In a similar incident, the SMRC also fined another website, Masr al-Arabia LE50,00 on April 1 following a complaint submitted by the chairperson of the National Elections Authority regarding the outlet’s coverage of the presidential election.
Masr al-Arabia published an overview of a New York Times’ piece titled “For as Little as $3 a Vote, Egyptians Trudge to Election Stations” on March 27. The council accused the publication of copying the foreign newspaper’s coverage without verifying the facts.
Police raided Masr al-Arabia’s office on April 3 and arrested its chief editor, Adel Sabry, who remains in police custody after prosecutors ordered his detention on April 4 pending investigations into accusations of inciting unlawful protests and disseminating false news, among other charges.
Masr al-Arabia is now among the 500 websites to which access is currently blocked on Egyptian ISPs.