Pushed out of Egypt for COVID-19 reporting

Egyptian health ministry emergency responders stand next to ambulances ready on the scene to transport suspected COVID-19 coronavirus disease cases that were detected on a Nile cruise ship, in the southern city of Luxor, on March 7, 2020. Photo via AFP/Getty Images

The warning that I would be expelled from Egypt began with a few simple words. “They just want to see your visa,” a British embassy official told me on March 18, passing on a message from Egyptian security officials at the country’s visa and immigration office. I knew what that meant: Other journalists had been called to the same authority to have their visas revoked. Later that day, the British official called me again as I sheltered in a hotel room, after a lawyer advised me to flee my apartment in case it was raided by police. The security services had spoken to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had passed a second message to the British embassy. “They’re asking you to leave,” he said.  

The wording was deceptively polite; this was a command, not a request. The three branches of the Egyptian security services are the backbone of a sprawling, fearsome state. Defying them by remaining in the country any longer than I had to meant risking arrest. I dodged the meeting at the visa authority by sending a lawyer in my place, after officials at the German embassy in Cairo—I’m a dual national—warned me I could be arrested or deported there. We think it’s best you get on a plane, they said. 

 

JUST A FEW DAYS PRIOR, I’d reported for the Guardian that Egypt likely had more coronavirus infections than the country’s official total. As part of my reporting, I cited a group of scientists from the University of Toronto who modeled the likely size of the outbreak in Egypt, estimating that the country had between 6,270 and 45,050 cases, with a median of 19,310, as of early March—a time when the country’s official total was just three cases. I also cited doctors’ and pharmacists’ experiences, as Egypt has an overwhelmingly young population, which is less likely to show serious symptoms. At the time of writing, at least 97 tourists had left Egypt and tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning home, a problem the Egyptian government still has few answers to. The Egyptian health ministry repeatedly labelled a Taiwanese tourist as the source of the outbreak in Luxor, then provided no further explanation after Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control refuted this entirely.  

The number of infected people has become a metric for evaluating the Egyptian government’s control of the disease; the possibility that more people could be infected has become almost blasphemous in the eyes of the authorities. Even now, as confirmed COVID-19 cases in Egypt top 7,000, the size of the outbreak remains an inflammatory subject, with fear and nationalist pride working alongside a state that is practiced at concealing information. Egypt is frequently cited as one of the world’s greatest violators of press freedom, ranked 166th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Journalists, both foreign and local, work in a claustrophobic environment where a web of opaque government bureaucracy impedes even simple reporting activities, like interviews in the street. Currently, more than 500 websites—many of them connected to news outlets—are blocked inside the country. Citizens are routinely detained on charges of “spreading rumors and fake news,” including about COVID-19; the country’s public prosecutor recently warned that those accused of spreading “false news” about the virus face steep fines and up to five years in prison. According to Amnesty International, at least twelve people have already been detained in a crackdown on information around COVID-19. They include Atef Hasballah, the editor of news site AlkararPress, who was bundled into the back of a police van and arrested on suspicion of “joining a terrorist organisation” after questioning the health ministry’s official infection count on his Facebook page. 

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There is no direct evidence of a cover-up in Egypt, but there is also little transparency about the outbreak and the government’s response. The key to an understanding of the true infection rate anywhere in the world is testing, yet there is little clarity about this in Egypt. At a March 18 press conference, Jean Yaacoub Jabbour, who heads the World Health Organization in Cairo, said Egypt had tested 3,015 people. A week later, Hala Zayed, Egypt’s health minister, claimed the government had tested 25,000 people. Jabbour recently chastised Egypt, saying the country needs to test more people in order to effectively combat the spread of the virus. As of late April, the health ministry said Egypt has PCR tested 90,000 people in total—less than half of its technical capacity, per the WHO. 

Almost every country in the world likely has a higher rate of COVID-19 infections than the number of confirmed cases, often due more to disorganization rather than a deliberate cover-up. Even the Pentagon has admitted the number infected personnel is likely an undercount. One study from Columbia University said that for every confirmed case, another five to ten undetected infections exist. 

My story, and the University of Toronto study, sparked outrage. This was more than angry phone calls from government officials, or the smattering of threatening tweets I’d received in the past. It appeared to be a coordinated campaign, one where publicly condemning my journalism had a political purpose.  Egyptian media, dominated by pro-government talk-show hosts and columnists decried the reporting. An army of online trolls attacked the Guardian under the hashtag “lies of the Guardian.” Alaa Mubarak, the son of former president Hosni Mubarak, described what he termed the “Guardian virus” as “no less dangerous than the coronavirus.” 

The same nationalist rage stalked the University of Toronto study and its authors. Days after I’d interviewed the scientists who published the epidemiological modelling, Dr Isaac Bogoch from the group tweeted the group’s findings on Egypt as he flew home from work in the United Arab Emirates to his family in Canada. The tweets set off a firestorm— “really quickly, within a matter of hours,” Bogoch told me later. Some tweets verged on physical threats, and mentioned his location. By the time he arrived home in Canada, a group of 73 Egyptian scientists had written to the University of Toronto to demand the institution investigate Bogoch. The letter calls Bogoch’s work with his colleagues “an irresponsible piece of information…that recently caused a significant panic across Egypt and may have severe economic consequences.” The university began an investigation, which later absolved the group of any wrongdoing. Just a day after his return, Bogoch was forced to call the police to his family home to address death threats he received.

“I’ve never had a response like this whatsoever,” Bogoch, whose work was ultimately published in the Lancet, told me later. Bogoch and the group published similar modelling for the United States, Italy, Iran, and the United Kingdom, and provided some of the first research on the spread of COVID-19 from China. His team had carefully followed ethical practices after completing their research, informing the World Health Organization before making their data available to the public—a common practice, particularly during a public-health crisis such as this one

A group of scientists from Egypt’s health ministry, including Hala Zayed, published a response in the Lancet in late April, using a different model to assess the rate of COVID-19 infections at the end of March, when Egypt had 710 confirmed cases. “We acknowledge that, in the absence of open screening, this could be an underestimation of the total number of patients and an overestimation of the fatality rate,” they said. They estimated that the number of positive COVID-19 infections at the time “could be in the range of 710–5241 patients.” 

Bogoch emphasized that his group’s research findings are “apolitical statements.” There was no implication from similar studies the group did on Iran, the US, or elsewhere that their work was intended as anything more than what it was—a model about the potential burden of cases. Still, he told me, “We’d be blind to ignore the overlap between public health, economics, and socio-political issues. We try to stay on the public health side as much as possible. But of course people standing more in the sociopolitical realm select data according to their beliefs.” 

 

THE DAY AFTER my story was published, I was summoned, along with Declan Walsh of the New York Times, to the headquarters of Egypt’s State Information Service, the main government organ that handles the media. During the course of a nearly four-hour meeting, Diaa Rashwan, the head of SIS, demanded repeatedly that the Guardian retract the story, and that I publish a personal apology. 

Spokespeople from many Egyptian ministries have years of practice at ignoring contact from reporters. Few are more practiced than Khaled Megahed, who represents the health ministry and who later branded my reporting “a disgrace to health.” While I mentioned that Megahed wasn’t available for comment in my original report, Rashwan demanded to know why I hadn’t cited the WHO, which routinely refers requests for comment back to Megahed. Rashwan dodged any question of why Megahed never responds to calls, and why Jabbour also never answered the phone. 

In an effort to portray my reporting as irresponsible, Rashwan repeatedly claimed the WHO denied the findings. In fact, the WHO stated it was unable to verify the methodology used in the University of Toronto study—unsurprising, given the nature of the WHO’s work. Days later, in an online press conference, Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the WHO director for the Eastern Meditarranean region, mentioned media coverage of countries not reporting true case numbers, stressing that the nature of COVID-19 means that only severe cases seek medical care. As a result, he said, “it is almost entirely the severe cases that are captured in disease surveillance systems. But it is probable that in all the countries in the world, there are many mild cases that are not identified.” 

Rashwan had printed out a grainy picture of Dr. Bogoch, and waved it around in a gesture of anger as he dismissed Bogoch’s credentials, as well as the credibility of the entire University of Toronto. “Who is this scientist? He only has a masters degree!” he crowed, overlooking the fact that “MD” stands for a higher degree in medicine. He demanded to know why we had cited these scientists, and not others whose work might have proved more favorable to the Egyptian government’s version of events. Walsh was, in the parlance of a later SIS press release, “warned” about his decision to tweet the University of Toronto study. 

Rashwan accused us of “spreading panic” about COVID-19. The next day, SIS revoked my press card.

The spread of COVID-19 has become a political issue around the world. But in undemocratic countries, amidst a desire to control information as much as the disease, scientists, doctors, and journalists are frequent targets. Authorities in Venezuela, Iran, and Belarus have detained journalists or prevented them from publishing due to their COVID-19 reporting. China expelled dozens of American reporters in an ongoing dispute with the Trump White House about journalism credentials, taking the opportunity to do so while the world is distracted with the virus. 

Accusations of “spreading panic,” or use of laws criminalising “fake news,” are also common, as in Egypt and Turkey, where citizens have been detained on these charges. A Chinese doctor was detained and reprimanded for “spreading false rumours” about the coronavirus; he was forced to sign a confession that he had “seriously disrupted social order,” shortly before he died of COVID-19. Turkmenistan went as far as to simply ban the word “coronavirus,” as though this alone could remove the spread of disease.

In Iraq, the government banned the Reuters news agency from operating in the country on April 3, after the outlet published reporting citing five sources including health ministry officials claiming that the country has a higher infection rate of COVID-19 than the official figure.  The government also issued a $21,000 fine while accusing the news agency of endangering public safety and hindering government efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It demanded a public apology to the government and the people of Iraq. Reuters stood by the story, adding in a statement that the agency is “seeking to resolve the matter and…working to ensure we continue to deliver trusted news about Iraq.”

A day after the heated meeting at SIS, I was summoned to appear at 9pm at the Cairo press center where journalists normally receive accreditation. Mohammed Emam, the head of the press center, presented me with an embossed folder containing two letters signed by Diaa Rashwan. The first one, addressed to me, detailed the removal of my accreditation. The second, addressed to Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, listed my alleged “misconducts,” including “deliberate exaggeration and search for topics that offends the situations [sic] in Egypt.” In return I supplied a letter from the Guardian, offering Diaa Rashwan the chance to publish a response to my article.

Emam was unusually contrite, offering me chocolate and a rare sense of camaraderie. Under normal circumstances, he represents journalists’ point of interaction with the Egyptian security services, who are more interested in denying accreditation and muzzling the press. Yet his demeanor suggested he understood the gravity of the situation and how it would play internationally. 

“You saw what China did, expelling those journalists?” he asked somberly. He confirmed the validity of my visa over the phone to an official at the visa authority, and seemed content that he had done his part.  “Inshallah kheir,” he repeated. “God willing, things will be better.” The next day, the government’s demands to “see” my visa began. 

 

THE NIGHT I FLED my apartment for a hotel, I found a van filled with police and security officials parked at the entrance to my building. Other than their stares there was no particular sign that they were there to intimidate me; still, in the two years I lived in that building, I’d never seen such a mass of security in that spot, facing my door. 

The next day, British officials attempted to negotiate with the Egyptian authorities. I understood that I had to leave, they explained, but with no more commercial flights I needed to wait until the airports reopened, allegedly in a few weeks’ time. Could they at least ensure I wasn’t arrested in the interim? The Egyptians offered no such reassurance, and continued to demand I show up at the visa office. They told my lawyer they were “offended” I hadn’t come in person. British officials offered for me to stay at the embassy in order to avoid detention.

The prospect of isolating myself in my apartment—one I had carefully stocked with provisions, anticipating a lockdown—now looked like a kind of house arrest. It could be months until the airport reopened for commercial flights, the prospect of a long period of gnawing fear stretching out before me. I had no choice but to leave, knowing full well I could not come back.

I arrived at Cairo International Airport on March 20 to board a flight arranged by the German embassy, alert to my potential arrest en route or inside the terminal. When the expressionless Egyptian security official at emigration scanned my passport, her eyes opened wide as she viewed the information on her computer screen. She hurriedly stamped my passport, as though desperate for me to leave.

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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.