Egypt’s top media regulator on Tuesday put into effect tighter restrictions that allow the state to block Web sites and even social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers if they are deemed a threat to national security.
The move is the latest step by the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to suppress dissent.
In the past few years, Egypt has launched an unprecedented crackdown on reporters and the media, imprisoning dozens and expelling some foreign journalists.
The new regulations, published in the official gazette late on Monday, allow the Egyptian Supreme Media Regulatory Council to block Web sites and accounts for “fake news,” and impose stiff penalties of up to 250,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,481), all without having to obtain a court order.
Prominent Egyptian journalists have called the measures unconstitutional, saying they grant far-reaching powers to authorities to censor the media, in contravention of basic press freedoms.
The council’s chief regulator, Makram Mohammed Ahmed, refused to comment.
Mohamed Abdel-Hafiz, a board member of the journalists’ union, said the government is threatening journalists with “vaguely defined national security violations, as well as vaguely defined political, social or religious norms.”
The nine-page document gave a broad list of prohibited topics, including “anything inciting violating the law, public morals, racism, intolerance, violence, discrimination between citizens or hatred.”
Media outlets that continue to publish “offending material” would be fined up to 5 million Egyptian pounds. The new regulations laid out the same penalty for outlets that publish content without obtaining distribution rights, plus additional compensation.
Critics of the new measures said that the rules are stricter than those approved by lawmakers in July last year, which they said gave the government almost total control over the media.
“Blocking Web sites is not included in the laws. The constitution itself states that Web sites and newspapers cannot be shut down without a court order,” said Gamal Abdel-Rahim, a journalists’ union board member.
The regulatory council had also ignored all of the union’s notes and comments on the new measures, he said.
Since late 2017, about 500 Web sites, including news outlets and rights groups, have been blocked, a report by Egyptian watchdog group the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression said.
Authorities say the measures are necessary to prevent instability as Egypt struggles to revive its economy and combat an Islamic insurgency in northern Sinai.
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