The Egyptian state has been long pointing on several occasions that social media platforms are the main reason of spread of rumours and negative energy among citizens in the country, suggesting the creation of legislation to criminalise or fine any users who posts or publishes something that could be seen as a threat to the country or interests of the citizens.
During the past years, particularly following revolution of 25 January, social media networks have been the platform where people can express their opinions on several political and economic topics, especially in the case that no more opponents are welcomed on most of media outlets, due to restrictions on the press.
Mainly, Facebook and Twitter were also widely used to expose security forces’ alleged violence against protesters, speak about health and education negligence, conditions of detainees, and stories of injustices. At the same time, a state of confusion appeared on social media, as many have used this freedom in a way that caused the publishing of misleading information.
With the growing influence of social media, which people are increasingly relying on for information, the government has started to pay attention to what is being posted on those platforms. The power of social media has contributed in changing many situations in the country, bringing violators to justice, helping citizens to voice their concerns, publishing achievements, and marketing many products and projects as well.
A huge wave of criticism appeared on social media platforms due to price hikes of fuel, electricity, and transport that came as part of recent economic reforms sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have caused many Egyptians to suffer economic hardship. This wave was annoying to the state, as it was believed that this will lessen people’s support for the state’s economic reform project and their patience to be present until its accomplishment.
Egypt has encountered 21,000 rumours in only three months, aimed at creating confusion and instability, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said in a televised speech during a military graduation ceremony that marked the commemoration of the 23 July revolution of 1952, adding that the real threat the country is facing is being undermined from within: “the pressure, the rumours, the terrorist acts, hopelessness, and discontentment,” Al-Sisi added.
Following the statements of the president, parliament members have repeated their calls for legislation that would be dedicated only for putting limits for rumours on social media.
A member of Parliament’s communications and information technology committee said that “Facebook has directly contributed to fuelling conflicts in the Middle East and dissemination of data and information that is not accurate at all; therefore the parliament intends, during the next legislative term, to issue a number of legislations to reduce the chaos of rumours spread over social networking sites.”
He explained that these laws will not affect the freedom of the press and will not be, as some claim, used to silence people.
The parliament has already passed a controversial law allowing the state to supervise users of social networking sites. Article 19 of the newly approved press and media law stipulates the Supreme Media Council to stop or block any personal website, blog, or social media account that has a high number of followers—exceeding 5,000—in case it commits a specific offence that will be seen publishing false news or advocating or inciting a violation for law or violence or hate. This article will deal with these accounts or blogs as a media outlet, which is viewed as an attack on personal freedom of opinion and expression, which violates the Constitution.
Previously, a number of members of the Press Syndicate council declared their rejection and condemnation regarding Article 19 of the draft law as “catastrophic” as it grants the Supreme Media Council a duty that is among its roles and comes in violation with Article 77 of the Constitution.
Head of media and culture committee Osama Heikal said that it was important to make a regulation for press and media law through social networking sites, which are followed by many, pointing out that freedom of opinion and expression will not be affected, but the punishment will be on spreading rumours.
He pointed out that citizens currently rely heavily on media to obtain information, saying that about 70% of the community do not read newspapers, do not watch television, but rely on electronic media and social networking sites that contribute to the spread of rumours.
Regarding the press, he continued that the sanctions that will be signed on the promoters of rumours, or news that do not rely on sources, or blocking for the sites issued from abroad, saying that “if inside Egypt I can get him, but outside Egypt will be blocked to preservation of society.”
He added that the law will be updated to keep abreast of the technological development that will dominate the media.
Head of committee of communication Nadal Saeed said that the parliament also will amend Article 188 of the Penal Code, concerning the publication and promotion of false news, during the upcoming legislative term.
The penalty for publishing false news includes imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine of not less than EGP 5,000 and not more than EGP 20,000, However, none of these penalties are suitable for the chaos of rumours that have spread recently by the electronic platforms, Saeed said.
He also added that “there are more than 2 million fake accounts on Facebook, which is very dangerous, and thus we seek to create new controls for users in favour of protecting the information of citizens and their personal lives, which still does not mean the closure of these sites.”
Saeed noted that the committee receives a large number of complaints every month, which could be about 700 monthly complaints, including accusing users of slander, libel, and publication of false news and information.
In a similar context, Ahmed Zadian, secretary of the communications and information technology committee, called on the government to quickly complete the executive regulation cybercrime law in order to begin implementing the penalties contained in this law.
In June, the Egyptian Parliament approved a draft law submitted by the government against crimes of information technology, known as the cybercrime law, which marks the first of its kind in Egypt in the field of combating cybercrime.
The law provides for penalties of up to EGP 5m for internet users and companies serving in violation of the provisions of this law. It further penalises those involved in disseminating information about movements of the army or police or promoting the ideas of terrorist organisations to prison, and imposing fines of tens of thousands of pounds on those found to be involved in the theft and penetration of others’ e-mail.
Several parliamentarians expressed their agreement with the law, believing that the law is extremely important to fight any personal life infringements and protecting the country’s security.
Last May, the government blocked nearly 20 websites, as officials claimed they were fuelling terrorism. They included news websites which the government has considered hostile to Egypt, such as Al-Jazeera and other Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated websites. The Egyptian Ministry of Interior is one body that is actively monitoring social media pages and has announced over the years the shutdown of hundreds of pages reportedly inciting violence.
In the following months, the campaign extended to more websites, among which were many local news websites, specialised online platforms (on arts, women, sports, etc.), and foreign websites as well. The critical content of some websites had already been the subject of denunciation by the government and pro-state media campaigns, which established that those websites were working on an agenda against the country and its people.
According to data from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, there are nearly 33 million internet users in Egypt as of 2017, a 41% internet penetration.