Egypt’s plan to limit rumours will choke its already suffocating press

As the global community battles the growing fake news trend, Egypt aims to clamp down on rumours by establishing a media centre tasked with “responding to rumours.”

In July, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stressed on war-threatening rumours’ spread on social media. According to el-sisi, over the past three months, more than 21,000 rumours had circulated in the country.

Warning against the risk of destroying the country with rumours, the president stated that Arab countries, Egypt inclusive, were vulnerable to imploding from within under what he described as a barrage of rumours aimed at spreading instability.

Following El-sisi’s statement, adverts like “Don’t believe everything you see on social media. Check news before you share it. Get news from a well-trusted source”, and “Social media are platforms of lies,” by the likes of state-run Nile News TV, which reviewed 8 false rumours spotted within 10 days started to flood the country’s news and social media platforms.

Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli stated that the Media Center of the Council of Ministers aims to “achieve effective communication between the government agencies and the various media outlets, by clarifying the facts to the public opinion and refuting rumours about various issues and subjects within a framework of transparency and credibility.”

Disagreeing with the government’s purpose for establishing a rumours response media centre, experts and observers have noted that the government’s efforts to clamp down rumours would be effective only after it grants the public more access to information.

Press freedom in Egypt

In recent years, there has been an unparalleled crackdown on Egypt’s media. There has been tighter censorship and more information control by the government.

The 2017 World press freedom index by the Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt 161st out of 180 countries, citing campaigns by security forces to marginalize nonconforming media opinions and the passage of a law that created a monitoring body with the power to fine or suspend media outlets.

According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, imprisonment of individual journalists, media blackouts, channel closures or blockages, and laws criminalizing false news have been used as tactics to stifle both independent and pro-regime media.

Barely six months after Egypt’s March presidential election which saw El-Sisi’s re-election, over 20 journalists, political and human rights activists were arrested. Between May 2017 and February 2018, the government also took its censorship online by blocking at least 496 websites.

Rumours response centre; a stifling tool

Mustafa Madbouli stated that the centre will in addition to clarifying facts, “present the achievements and activities of the government in a simple and comprehensive way, while highlighting the government’s efforts to solve the problems of citizens,” Madbouli said.

Ayman Nada, a professor of public opinion and media at Cairo University, likened the government’s establishment of a rumour response media centre to “painkillers that do not cure the underlying disease.” According to him, rumours are mostly predictions of actions or decisions from lack of clear information and agenda by the government.

The best way to eliminate rumour according to Nada is when Egypt adopts a law that allows freedom and circulation of information, increases media freedom and restores media confidence.