Egypt passes bill to block popular social media accounts

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Egypt’s parliament has passed a bill targeting popular social media accounts that authorities accuse of publishing “fake news”.

The move is the latest in a five-year drive to suppress dissent and silence independent sources of news in the country.

The legislation was adopted late on Monday by the staunchly pro-government chamber, though details of the new bill only emerged on Wednesday.

Under the new law, personal social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers are labelled as media outlets, and authorities are empowered to block them on the grounds of publishing “fake news”.

There was no elaboration on what is or is not considered as “fake news”.

The bill still needs to go to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for ratification – a foregone conclusion since such bills are often inspired by his government. The general-turned-president, who has been in power since 2014, has overseen Egypt’s largest crackdown on dissent

El-Sissi won a second, four-year term in March after running virtually unopposed. In 2013, as defense minister, he led the military’s 2013 ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. Authorities have since jailed thousands, mostly Islamists but also secularists behind a 2011 uprising that toppled Mr Morsi’s predecessor, the long-standing autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Authorities have over the past year blocked some 500 websites, including those of independent media and rights groups.

The authorities have claimed such websites supported “terrorism” or reported “false news”.

Egypt was ranked 161 out of 180 countries in the 2017 Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders advocacy group.

Under the new legislation, the power to block popular accounts will rest with the country’s chief media regulator, hand-picked by the president.

He would also have the authority to file criminal complaints against platforms and individuals accused of such offences as “inciting people to violate laws” and “defamation or discrimination against individuals and religions”.

Prominent journalists have decried the bill as unconstitutional and a violation of basic press freedoms, saying they grant far-reaching powers to authorities to censor the press, revoke media licences and restrict journalists’ work.

The pro-government chairman of the journalists’ union, Abdel-Mohsen Salama, has welcomed the legislation, but six members of the union board have protested the bill’s “vague phrasing” that, they say, allows authorities to control the media.

They also argue that the bill allows the detention of journalists pending trial in violation of the constitution, a relatively liberal document adopted in 2014 but which critics say has often been ignored or misinterpreted by the government as it presses on with its suppression of freedoms.

“It is a sad day for the press,” said Yahia Kalash, the former head of the journalists’ union.

The legislation also bans establishing online media outlets without a government licence and empowers media regulators to block existing online media outlets serving as a refuge for young writers and liberal activists escaping government restrictions on the freedom of expression.

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