Why things could get even worse for reporters in Egypt

July 17, 2015

A request at the Egyptian Government Press Office for some long-sought-after piece of documentation normally results in someone pulling out a stack of papers or going to a cupboard stuffed with folders. But my request to find the people working for FactCheckEgypt was met with confusion: What, I was asked, is FactCheckEgypt?

My effort to track down the FactCheckEgypt office began after I and a handful of other foreign journalists received emails related to our reporting on an Islamic State affiliate attack in the Sinai Peninsula on July 1. The e-mail, from someone calling herself a “reporter at FactCheckEgypt, part of the State Information Service,” landed in my inbox on July 5, demanding to know why I had used anonymous sources in my reporting, and why I had cited a source other than the Egyptian military when writing about the number of dead security personnel. The emailer wanted to know whether The Independent, the outlet that had published my story, would be issuing “a correction.”

This is nothing compared to the ill treatment many local journalists experience in Egypt, but it could become more common. In the days following the Sinai attack, Egypt’s cabinet began debating a draconian counter-terrorism bill that would sentence any journalist, local or foreign, to heavy penalties for reporting a “non official narrative” of a terrorist attack. On July 4, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also distributed a sheet of advised terms for militant groups to foreign journalists at a press briefing. Instead of referring to the so-called Islamic State, the government recommends that journalists call its members “slaughterers” or “assassins.”

The section of the counter-terrorism bill that carries penalties for journalists, known as Article 33, is still being debated. Some of the options on the table, leaked by government ministers, include reducing the proposed two-year prison sentence to a fine equivalent to up to $64,000, or stipulating that the law may only apply to social media. The government has also acknowledged that it should have consulted with the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, which opposes the terms of Article 33. The bill awaits President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi’s signature, which is expected in the coming weeks, once the details are worked out.

The measure is part of a broad effort by the Egyptian government to control how journalists, both local and foreign, report the news. Meanwhile, the government has enlisted a coalition of supposedly independent bodies to undermine and hector foreign journalists who publish critical coverage, part of a harsh ongoing clampdown on press freedom.

FactCheckEgypt is one of these so-called watchdogs. Its editor, Ayman Wallash, recently told a local news outlet that the site will “track all misinformation in world media reports about Egypt and post it on the website bearing the bureau’s name. We will also list those who abide by the corrections and those who do not.”

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The July 1 attacks in Sinai spewed forth endless horrific news: Wilayat Sinai, a jihadist group based in the Sinai Peninsula, tried to seize the small town of Sheikh Zuweid in North Sinai. As journalists in Cairo attempted to file on the ongoing carnage, the Egyptian military put out reports on television and via its Facebook page stating that 17 soldiers had been killed. This number did not rise from the early afternoon onwards, although the Egyptian army’s battle to retake the town lasted into the evening.

The Sinai Peninsula has been described as a “reporting black spot” by the Committee to Protect Journalists, given the restrictions and difficulties in operating on the ground. On the day of the attack, for example, cell phone lines and internet were down in Sheikh Zuweid. Repeated calls to the hospital in nearby Al-Arish, where bodies were being taken, failed to yield updated or precise figures, even after Reuters managed to speak to a doctor there who said he’d seen at least 30 bodies brought in.

Officials in Egypt are often loathe to speak on the record, sometimes even to provide seemingly basic information. As a result, journalists from a wide range of outlets used intelligence sources within the Egyptian military in Cairo to publish death tolls far higher than 17, the figure given by the military that day. Reporting from Cairo, I used intelligence sources as well as contacts connected to those on the ground in Sheikh Zuweid to corroborate the number of dead soldiers given by the Associated Press, which was 64.

I replied to the e-mail from FactCheckEgypt, explaining that I had sought out other sources than the military for the number of soldiers killed because the Egyptian army’s tally of dead had not risen after the early afternoon, even though fighting continued into the evening. I also offered to meet with FactCheckEgypt personnel and to put them in touch with my editors in London. When I received no response, I contacted the organization again to see if I could ask some questions. I was curious to understand the identity and purpose of the people contacting me. Wallash, the site’s editor, did not respond to requests for comment, but I received a response from Rhonda Roland Shearer, the head of iMediaEthics, who had been inexplicably copied into the original e-mail.

iMediaEthics is a supposedly independent media “watchdog” registered as a nonprofit in New York. The organization, which changed its name from Stinky Journalism in 2011, is registered as part of the Art Science Research Laboratory, Inc., which describes itself as a venue of “interdisciplinary study” headquartered on Greene Street in New York.

Shearer and iMediaEthics’ connection to FactCheckEgypt was contained in the tagline of FactCheckEgypt’s original email, which states that the organization is a product of “free training by iMediaEthics, and is developing with State Information Service.” Shearer told the Huffington Post that this training began a year ago.

Shearer told me that the FactCheckEgypt site will push for what she sees as better industry-wide policies for journalistic verification, and to “seek corrections, clarifications and, when appropriate, retractions and apologies from international media when factual evidence shows that the news reports have erred or exhibit failed methodology.”

iMediaEthics also intends to publish a report concerning how foreign journalists in Egypt covered the attacks in Sinai, she told me, and that I was to feature in it. Her critiques became increasingly personal; she even e-mailed me screenshots of my interactions on Twitter in order to back up her accusation that I had somehow fabricated the number of soldiers killed in Sinai.

Shearer is a curious character, who has previously attracted attention for digging up dirt on Marcel Duchamp and her “obsessive crusade” against an alleged ponzi scheme by a telecommunications company, in the words of ForbesDocuments dated from 2005 show that Shearer, based at the same Greene Street address as both iMediaEthics and the Art Science Research Laboratory, applied to purchase crude oil from Egypt as president of the Global Reliable Oil Company, registered in the British Virgin Islands.

iMediaEthics has previously published detailed criticisms on The New York Times‘ reporting in Egypt, attacking reporters for their use of anonymous sources and accusing them of lacking balance. Shearer has also reported for iMediaEthics on the trial of three Al Jazeera journalists charged with “spreading lies” and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which has since been designated a terrorist organization. Her reports are in keeping with the Egyptian government’s line on the now-banned network’s behavior.

Why is an affiliate of Egypt’s State Information Service aggressively chasing foreign reporters, especially via a third party based in New York, to retroactively change reports? Using anonymous sources is as much of a day to day part of reporting in Egypt as the need to have a press card. It’s not journalists here who force sources to be anonymous, but a state that demands secrecy from those within it.

Shearer told me that iMediaEthics’ purpose is to create an “inclusive dialogue” which aims to produce “better reporting.” Instead, the project seems aimed at hounding journalists into making their reports more favorable to the Egyptian government or silencing them altogether. Foreign journalists in Egypt have often had the freedom to write things that local media feel unable or unwilling to publish. This scrutiny seems aimed at promoting self-censorship. It also forces journalists to spend their time combating these attacks rather than simply getting on with their jobs.

Without doubt, the climate in Egypt is most poisonous for the local journalists who risk a constant threat of arrest: at least 18 are currently behind bars, the highest incarceration rate since the Committee to Protect Journalists began monitoring in 1990. Yet Egypt is not above incarcerating or hassling foreign journalists, as the case against Al Jazeera shows. The El Pais correspondent in Cairo recently fled Egypt after his embassy told him he was at risk of arrest. Egypt ranked 158 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index in 2014.

“It is our view that journalists’ basic function in any democratic society is to vet government behavior, not the other way around,” said Sharif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The government should focus on fulfilling its role, as prescribed in Egypt’s own constitution, of providing free access to information, instead of intimidating critical and independent reporters.”

Egypt has been in a state of heightened nationalism since President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi came to power in June 2013, but attacks such as those in Sinai or the assassination of Attorney General Hisham Barakat, which occurred two days earlier, tend to bring these sentiments to the fore. Journalist Sarah Carr described how newspapers such as Youm7 joined a chorus of Egyptian ministers by comparing “the publishing of incorrect information to psychological warfare against the Egyptian people.”

The list of approved and unapproved words for militant groups originated as part of an ongoing initiative by Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta religious authority, an institution that rules on Islamic law. The organization stated that they wish to remove any religious connection from discussions of extremism, hence the desire to replace terms like “ISIL” or “jihadists” with “criminals” or “savages”.

Policing the terms used by journalists to describe militant groups isn’t exclusive to Egypt; Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron recently sparked a debate after demanding that the BBC stop using the term “Islamic State.”

The challenges faced by governments in combating groups like IS are complex; cracking down on journalists is much easier. The attacks in Sinai sent shockwaves through Egypt, but controlling the words journalists use and banning them from reporting information that conflicts with the official line won’t stop similar tragedies from occurring in future. 

Ruth Michaelson is a reporter who has covered the Middle East since 2012. Based in Egypt for five and a half years, she has covered North Africa and the Gulf for the Guardian and other publications. She is a 2014 graduate of the Toni Stabile Centre for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.