CAIRO (AP) — Egypt wants its citizens to report on the news media.
Escalating a pre-election crackdown on independent or critical reporting, Egyptian authorities have published a list of telephone numbers for citizens to alert them to reports they view as undermining security or spreading false news.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the 2013 overthrow of an elected Islamist president, has waged a massive crackdown on dissent in recent years, and authorities have ratcheted up pressure ahead of the March 26-28 election, in which he faces no real challenge.
All potentially serious competitors either withdrew under pressure or were arrested, leaving only el-Sissi and a little-known politician who supports him.
Authorities have already silenced virtually all independent or critical media in the country, and in recent weeks el-Sissi and others have warned the media against publishing anything that could be construed as false news or defamation of the security forces.
By offering the telephone numbers — in a statement issued late Monday by Egypt’s chief prosecutor — the government appears to be enlisting ordinary Egyptians in its efforts to stamp out any criticism or negative coverage.
The statement advises citizens to send complaints on WhatsApp or as text messages along with their personal details. It referred to a statement last week by chief prosecutor Nabil Sadeq in which he told his staff to monitor the media and take action against any that are “hurting national interests.”
With the outcome of the vote a foregone conclusion, the government’s worst fear is an embarrassingly low turnout that would raise further questions about the election’s legitimacy. To prevent that, the government and local media — which is dominated by el-Sissi supporters — are urging people to head to the polls.
“The margin of freedom is steadily narrowing and there is a state of fear-mongering,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “There is genuine fear that social media networks will be used to urge people to boycott the election.”
Banners declaring support for el-Sissi have sprung up across Egypt, a country of 100 million that is still trying to recover from years of political turmoil and violence since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The government has already sought to exert heavy control over reporting on the election, issuing guidelines barring journalists from conducting any polls, or even asking individual Egyptians who they plan to vote for.
Critical TV personalities have been pushed off the air and dozens of independent and Islamist news websites have been blocked. Around 20 journalists have been detained, including two who were arrested earlier this month while preparing a report on a historic tramway in Alexandria. In a separate case, the government demanded an apology from the BBC and called on officials to boycott the network after it reported on torture and disappearances.
Pro-government media frequently portray negative coverage as part of foreign plots to sow chaos, and sometimes accuse foreign media of promoting a negative image of the country. Cameramen or even reporters with notebooks attempting to conduct interviews in public can face harassment from crowds or police.
In comments published Tuesday, Telecommunications Minister Yasser el-Qady said “concrete” steps have been taken to create exclusively Egyptian social media networks, suggesting that Egypt aspires to follow the example of countries like China, where networks like Facebook are blocked and people use a local version that’s easier to control and monitor. Parliament is meanwhile considering legislation that would criminalize the “abuse” or “misuse” of social media.
Authorities say the measures they have taken are necessary to prevent instability as Egypt struggles to revive its economy and combat an Islamic State-led insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula. El-Sissi has frequently suggested that political rights are less important than the right to food, housing and other necessities.
El-Sissi, then a general, led the 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, a freely elected Islamist whose divisive yearlong rule sparked mass protests calling for his resignation.
The government’s relations with the media soured almost immediately thereafter, when authorities objected to using the word “coup” to describe the military overthrow of an elected leader.
Since then, thousands of Islamists have been arrested, along with several prominent secular activists, while many of the freedoms won in the wake of the 2011 uprising have been rolled back.
Analysts pointed out that the latest measure, the call to report on media outlets, could have unintended consequences, allowing individuals to settle scores or make fake or exaggerated complaints.
“I don’t see a need for all these measures. We are looking at an election that’s already decided and the only challenge facing the regime is the turnout,” said Ahmed Abd Rabou, a political science professor at Cairo University who writes occasional columns for local papers.
“It’s hysterical. But it is a fact that we are heading toward more authoritarianism. Regrettably, that seems to be happening in many places.”