Diaa Rashwan, head of the State Information Service (SIS), the government body tasked with overseeing foreign media in Egypt, is outspoken about his belief that the Egyptian state is in open conflict with the international press.
“We are facing the fiercest foreign media smear campaign that Egypt has encountered throughout its modern history,” Rashwan said in a television interview on the privately owned Al-Haya television station in February. He went on to detail the steps the SIS is taking in response, including issuing written reports denouncing “offensive” coverage and summoning journalists for closed-door discussions.
Over the last few years, and particularly since Rashwan was appointed SIS head in June 2017, working conditions for foreign reporters in Egypt have gone from being difficult to a grueling daily battle with authorities, as international journalists are forced to endure an increasingly suffocating bureaucracy, public shaming, backroom intimidation and the looming threat of deportation.
The SIS is an oversight body established in 1954 that defines its role as “the nation’s main informational, awareness and public relations agency” and closely monitors foreign media activities in Egypt. Although initially formed under the now disbanded Information Ministry, it has been operating under the office of the presidency since 2012.
Rashwan’s tightened grip on the foreign press comes in the context of a wider state crackdown on all media, which dramatically intensified following the military-backed ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 as part of a campaign to silence any and all opposition voices. Authorities have since taken unprecedented measures against press freedoms in an effort to control the narrative about Egypt, both at home and abroad.
Egyptian journalists working for local media outlets have borne the brunt of the state’s repression. Local reporters have been forcibly disappeared, prosecuted and imprisoned; critical voices have been purged from the airwaves; and the public prosecutor has called for legal action over what he calls “fake news,” saying the “forces of evil” are undermining the Egyptian state. While the foreign media has generally been spared from the state’s worst abuses, authorities are increasingly targeting international correspondents in a variety of ways, creating a pervasive climate of harassment and intimidation.
Half a dozen foreign journalists in Egypt spoke to Mada Masr about the unprecedented challenges they face in reporting from the country. They all asked to remain anonymous for fear that revealing their identity would attract further harassment from authorities.
Rashwan’s 2017 appointment as head of the SIS came at a time when three new bodies were created to regulate public and private media outlets. On July 16 of this year, Parliament passed the new Law on Regulating the Press and Media and the Supreme Media Regulatory Council, which introduces unprecedented restrictions on journalism and media practices in Egypt.
Before Rashwan — a journalist, academic and former head of the Journalists Syndicate — the SIS was headed mostly by diplomats, and was largely non-confrontational, preferring to operate behind the scenes.
Foreign journalists who spoke with Mada Masr say that Rashwan seems to wield more power than his predecessors. On the one hand, they say, this enables him to grant permits and official access when he chooses to; on the other, it also allows him to be a more aggressive and brazen critic of the international press.
Prior to his appointment as SIS head, Rashwan had developed strong, established relationships with the foreign media as a political commentator. He was often quoted in the press and made regular appearances on the very same international outlets that he now slanders as SIS chief. In 2011, he headed the state-owned Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and has steadily risen through the institutional ranks since 2013, when he was elected head of the Journalists Syndicate. That same year, he was appointed as a member of the 50-member committee tasked with drafting the 2014 Constitution and subsequently secured a seat in the Supreme Press Council and, more recently, the National Press Authority.
Under Rashwan’s leadership, the SIS has engaged in several high profile clashes with the foreign press, releasing statements of condemnation against several foreign outlets’ coverage of the 2018 presidential elections, the death toll reported on the Wahat Road militant attack in October of last year, a BBC report on forced disappearances published in February, and a New York Times story on Egypt’s unofficial stance toward relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem. The statements were usually accompanied by TV appearances where Rashwan would reiterate the state’s position and blast the foreign press.
In March of this year, a case was brought before the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters by a lawyer requesting that the BBC offices in Cairo be closed on the basis that the outlet airs false news and tarnishes Egypt’s image after it broadcast its February report on forced disappearances. The court dismissed the case in June, after ruling that it was outside its jurisdiction.
Several journalists working for foreign outlets told Mada Masr that Rashwan and other SIS officials have adopted a new tactic of calling up individual journalists, questioning them about their coverage and demanding they alter their reports. One journalist, who attended a meeting with Rashwan alongside other foreign reporters, says the SIS chief had a stack of story clippings that he disapproved of and wanted to bring up with the group.
Rashwan did not respond to Mada’s request for an interview.
The SIS is only one arm of the state in what appears to be a comprehensive government effort to control Egypt’s image abroad. The Foreign Affairs Ministry has also taken it upon itself to constantly refute reports by local and international rights organizations, claiming they are seeking to tarnish Egypt’s reputation. Meanwhile, government officials and pro-state media outlets regularly tout conspiracy theories about collusion between the media and foreign governments and vilify journalists as spies, creating a hostile working environment for the press.
“Media has pushed the message that if you’re with foreign media and writing about Egypt, you must have nefarious purposes,” one foreign correspondent tells Mada Masr.
The sudden deportation of the Egypt correspondent for The Times earlier this year sent shockwaves throughout the community of international reporters in Egypt.
Bel Trew, a British national, began working as a reporter in Egypt in 2011 for a variety of media outlets and, in 2013, became the Times’ Cairo correspondent. On February 20, she was picked up by security forces while conducting an interview in a Cairo neighborhood. Police escorted her to the airport and threatened her with prosecution if she didn’t leave immediately, which she was forced to do without any of her belongings.
The SIS issued a statement defending Trew’s deportation, claiming that she hadn’t applied for the temporary press card that foreign journalists are required to carry. It also accused Trew of filming in the street without the necessary permits, although according to The Times, she was not shooting at the time.
Trew’s abrupt deportation unsettled the community of foreign correspondents in Egypt who no longer knew where the red lines were. According to correspondents who attended a meeting with Rashwan to discuss Trew’s deportation, no clear answers were given as to why she was targeted, rendering the situation even more disconcerting.
“We still don’t know what happened with Bel, but it’s clear that they wanted to make an example out of her,” a foreign correspondent working for a major publication tells Mada Masr. “When you don’t know what the boundaries are, it makes you think twice about what you write.”
Trew’s deportation sent a clear message: No one is safe and no offense is too small to trigger a drastic government response. Trew was, in many ways, in a more secure position than many foreign journalists operating in Egypt: she was employed by a major publication that was based in a Western country with strong diplomatic ties to Egypt. She had also been based in Cairo for seven years and, to the best of her knowledge, she had all her paperwork in order.
While the dramatic details of Trew’s deportation reverberated strongly among foreign reporters, she is not the only journalist to be be tossed out of the country this year. In May, Nina Hubinet, a French journalist who worked in Egypt between 2008 and 2013, was banned from entering the country when she arrived at Cairo airport for the first time in five years for a vacation.
In May 2016, another French journalist, Rémy Pigaglio who was working as a licensed Cairo correspondent for the French newspaper La Croix, returned to Egypt following a short vacation abroad, only to be detained in Cairo airport for 30 hours before being informed that he was banned from entering the country and promptly deported.
A foreign photojournalist who has been working in Egypt for several years says that in the last year, particularly in the months since Trew’s deportation, she has become extra cautious about adhering to all the requisite security protocols.
“Last year, if you had called me up and said there was an assignment in Alexandria tomorrow, I’d pack up and go. Now, I’d apply and wait for the permit, and I wouldn’t work even one street outside of the area designated in the permit,” the photojournalist explains. While the state has succeeded in forcing foreign journalists to adhere more closely to an increasingly stringent set of rules, the photojournalist doesn’t believe it has succeeded in controlling the content of her work. “I take all the jobs I get, but I walk a very thin line. I can’t afford to miss a loophole,” she adds.
The official paperwork and permits required by authorities has become an ever-changing and increasingly complicated issue.
Until last year, foreign correspondents needed their annual press cards, which granted them residency in the country of up to one year. The annual press cards are typically only issued in the middle of the year, until then, journalists must acquire temporary cards which are reissued on a monthly basis.
The Press Center for Foreign Correspondents, which operates under the SIS, held the permits of several journalists for reasons related to their reporting. “Whether or not you get your press card is completely reliant on your relationship with the press office and your coverage,” one journalist, who was denied a press card for four months in 2017/18, tells Mada Masr. “If they don’t like you, they simply don’t give you your card.”
Aside from the press cards, which have become a monthly battle, and the residencies, which another correspondent told Mada Masr are sometimes delayed for months without explanation, new additional paperwork is now required in order for foreign reporters to work legally in Egypt.
Up until recently, only videographers were required to obtain street permits in order to shoot in specific locations. Now, photographers and radio journalists are also required to obtain site-specific street permits. Even print journalists now often resort to getting street permits so as to avoid giving authorities any excuse to retaliate against them, as they ostensibly did with Trew.
One journalist recounts that he had to fill out four booklets with extensive questioning about every aspect of his life in order to be granted a temporary permit to cover the president’s office. Another correspondent says that sometimes permits take so long that by the time the correspondent receives them, they have already expired.
“We’re constantly trying to navigate the system and bureaucracy and figure out what’s going on,” one journalist says.
If the state’s aim is to limit the number and functionality of foreign press in Egypt, then its plan appears to be working. According to journalists who spoke to Mada Masr, the Cairo bureau is no longer as sought after as it used to be, and the last few years have seen a considerable decrease in the number of foreign journalists working in Egypt. While part of the reason is that Egypt has taken a backseat in international coverage, with more attention being focussed on other countries in the region, the hostile working environment has also had a tangible effect.
The stringent restrictions and confounding bureaucracy have made it especially hard on visiting journalists, who have to spend months on paperwork in order to get permission to report for a few days in the country and cannot guarantee they would be allowed to operate freely or even get the story they came for.
“There’s a feeling that to be here you have to really love the story because the environment is really tough,” the reporter working for a major foreign publication said. The measures appear to be taking their toll. “They’re designing a system to exhaust you, they get in your face and give you more bureaucracy, it’s an impediment to your work.”
The pressure from the SIS has produced some tangible results. After it issued a statement refuting a Reuters story on vote buying in the March presidential election, the news agency withdrew the report.
Ultimately, however, while foreign journalists’ work has been hampered by new restrictions, intimidation, and continuous vilification by both state and private media institutions, the government’s efforts to control the narrative presented to foreign audiences have largely backfired. The media crackdown has become a big story in and of itself and is commonly cited, both by international media organizations and human rights advocacy groups, as a glaring example of the regime’s repressive and undemocratic ways.