Coronavirus Trials in Egypt: Blurring the Lines Between Fake News and Freedom of Expression

With the surge of Covid cases in Egypt, the government imposed further restrictions on the freedom of expression and opinion. The Egyptian State monopolized the term “real news,” constraining it to news issued by official authorities only. Any other news would be deemed fake and prosecuted before the public.

Between March and June 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak, the country witnessed a spike in criminal investigations and pre-trial detention of citizens, activists, doctors and journalists. They were being falsely accused of disseminating misinformation about the pandemic.

The enforcement of the Anti-Cybercrime Law at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020—albeit promulgated in August 2018—has led to a quantum leap in charges against social media users. The “Anti-Terrorism Law” has also been widely misused in investigations before the Supreme State Security Prosecution (special court). Lawyer Hassan al-Azhari explained to SMEX that this law addresses vague charges, such as promoting fake news or information, with broad authorizations to track personal social media accounts.

The Coronavirus Trials

Egypt witnessed several cases pertaining to circulating news on the Covid-19 outbreak or the number of infections or deaths within medical teams. The two State Security cases No. 535 and 558 of 2020, involving doctors, journalists, activists, citizens, and researchers, exemplify this worrying trend. 

For instance, in State Security case No. 558/2020, presenter Khaled Hilmi Ghoneim was arrested after sharing a Facebook post about a hospital neglecting Covid patients. Editor-in-chief of al-Qarar al-Dawli Atef Hasballah el-Sayed was also arrested after posting a Facebook comment about the increase in the number of Covid-19 cases. The Supreme State Security Prosecution accused him of “belonging to a terrorist group and spreading fake news,” and then ordered that he be taken into custody for 15 days on remand. Lawyer Mohsen Bahnasi, a member of the Freedoms Committee of the Egyptian Bar Association, was also arrested after sharing a Facebook post on the spread of the virus.

These trials raise serious questions about the legal framework that differentiates between fake news on one hand, and the dissemination and free circulation of information on the other. It also brings into question the legal framework for criticizing government policies implemented in response to the pandemic: Is this criticism considered fake news or will it be respected as a right which falls under the freedom of expression?

In an interview with SMEX, lawyer Mostafa Fouad, Deputy Director at Humena for Human Rights and Civic Engagement, stated that, “The lack of transparency and freedom to circulate information about the real figures raises doubts on the accuracy of announced numbers.” This in turn prompts citizens to circulate information that is at odds with the official data. Fouad believes that the Egyptian Government is suppressing criticism by prosecuting those who share any information about the reality of the pandemic in Egypt, as well as those who criticize the way the government is dealing with Covid-19 patients.

Is All Skepticism Towards Government Data Considered Fake News?

AFTE’s report: The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped Repression, published in June 2020, attributes arresting activists, doctors and citizens on charges of publishing and circulating information about the Covid-19 to three reasons: Criticism of the Ministry of Health’s policies in dealing with the pandemic, information about undisclosed cases, and calls for releasing prisoners for fear of the disease’s outbreak in prisons.

In an interview with SMEX, Lawyer Hassan al-Azhari, a legal researcher with Massar – Technology and Law Community, stated that the confusion between fake news on the one hand and the freedom of expression and the circulation of information on the other hand is due to the “absence of a legislation granting citizens formal access to real information, and to the fact that any information is considered fake news by authorities.”

The Egyptian Penal Code does not provide a definition for fake news. Yet at the same time, it sets standards that describe the “crime” of spreading fake news as the deliberate publication and dissemination of fake news with malevolent intent. Article 102 states: “Anyone who intentionally spreads fake news, statements, or rumors shall be punished if such news, statements, or rumors would disrupt public security, cause terror among people, or harm public interest.”

The Egyptian Constitution considers any criticism or skepticism about government policies a legitimate, protected right, as mentioned in articles 65 and 72.

The Egyptian Constitution considers any criticism or skepticism about government policies a legitimate, protected right, as mentioned in articles 65 and 72. As such, the rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court state that “The Constitution does not aim, through freedom of expression, to achieve general consensus, but rather to guarantee, through its preservation, the plurality of opinions” (Supreme Constitutional Court, Appeal No. 6 of the 15th Judicial-Constitutional Year, session of April 15, 1995). The Court also considers that:  “Criticizing public action through the press or other means of expression and tools is a guaranteed right to every citizen, and  a freedom provided for by the democratic system whose supreme goal is to reach the truth. This can only be achieved by ensuring the cross-border flow of information from various sources and presenting it amid an open horizon.” (The Supreme Constitutional Court, Appeal No. 42 of the 16th Judicial-Constitutional Year, session of May 20, 1995).

In reality, none of these appeals are respected. People who published “fake news” about the Coronavirus were immediately arrested. According to al-Azhari, “The fake news incident was never addressed, and there are no details related to the accusations of spreading false information. There is also no link between the charges and the investigations, which means that the information published cannot be described as fake news and thus require criminal prosecution.”

Al-Azhari believes that information by citizens “Is being widely circulated because of skepticism about state-backed data on the spread of the virus. Citizens are reporting what they see and experience on the ground. They can compare the numbers in their country with those in neighboring countries and the world, and recognize disparities.”

“Oppressing the freedom to circulate information by prosecuting people who share them highlights a dangerous legal flaw. The constitution and the law are supposed to work to preserve the freedoms and rights of citizens, rather than restricting them,” concluded Fouad from “Humena”.

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Mohammed Farahat

Mohamad Farahat is an Egyptian lawyer, legal trainer and political researcher. He currently serves as the program coordinator for the Egyptian Foundation of Refugees Rights (EFRR).