Shackling Digital Rights and Freedoms in Egypt
Why and How digital rights and freedoms suffering in Egypt? The digital revolution and using the technology and different social media applications in Egypt played a significant role in the political revolution that led to political changes in 2011 and 2013 and influenced Egyptian political context and changes to the present. The regimes post 2011 paid special attention to digital rights and social media by taking all possible measures to control access to the Internet and target activists. To achieve that, the different regimes used the technical means to censors and surveillance the activists and content or through legislation tools to legalize the Internet shutdown, ban websites, possess personal data, abuse right to privacy, and criminalized the right to freedom of expression under the accusation of fake news which considers a national security crime. These practices increased in 2020, in time of COVID 19, whereas, circulating information about the pandemic was dealt with as a national security issue.
Access to the Internet in Egypt
Egypt witnessed a revolution in the ICT sector during the past two decades. For example, by the end of the year 2000, there were only 450,000 Internet users have access to the Internet, which rose to 20 million users (), before 2011 mostly youth (), and rose to 29 million during 2011. According to ITU, by 2019, the Percentage of the population using the Internet reached 57.28 %(). Facebook users increased from 4.2 million users in the year 2010 to 9.4 million Users in the year 2011(), and by the end of 2019, Facebook users in Egypt reached 42,400,000 () According to National Telecommunication Regulator Authority (NTRA), the number of fixed broadband subscribers reached 799,000 by the second quarter of 2020 and the number of mobile broadband subscribers reached 45,707,490 by the second quarter of 2020(). Although the ICT revolution, raising in penetration rate, and transformation to virtual life as a result in a pandemic, around 43% of Egyptians still have no access to the Internet. Also, the increasing in the penetration rate to the Internet was associated with adopting restrictive regulations and laws that led to close the virtual civic space and restrict digital rights.
Digital Rights: Laws and Legal Framework
The legislation is one of the tools that used by Egyptian regimes to close the virtual civic space and breach digital rights. Digital laws refer to a set of legislation and provisions that are adopted to regulate all online activities – inter alia – digital human rights. The Egyptian legal context has been developed to impose constraints on individuals’ digital rights. In 2018 the Egyptian parliament issued Law No.175 of 2018 concerned with combating information technology crimes” Cybercrimes law” and Law No.180 of 2018 concerned with Media regulation. In addition, Law No.10 of the year 2003 concerned with regulating communication.
The provisions of the law gave the power to authority to block websites if they harm national security. The article (1) of the Law No.175 of 2018 in concern of combating information technology crimes” Cybercrimes law defines national security as everything related to the independence, stability, and security of the homeland and anything linked to affairs of the Presidency, the Ministry of Defense and General Intelligence …, etc. The same definition is also repeated in many laws organizing the Internet, without any interpretation or explanation of the concept of national security or clarification of its determinants () Thus, the authority has the right to determine what is considered oriented-security matters and what is not. Some reports stated that from the Law on Combating Information Technology Crimes, the state aims to “completely control the Internet, suppress its users, legalize state practices in censoring this space, blocking websites, and mass surveillance of communications” and other reports added “before the adoption of these “controversial” laws, the Egyptian legal environment lacked the legal cover and legal justification for the practice of blocking “.According to Art(19) of law 180 of 2018 concerned with regulating the press and media, the authorities have a right to block websites and electronic news for publishing false news. Besides these specific laws, Art (102 bis) of the penal code had criminalized fake news and consider it as one of national security’s crimes if it aimed to harm the public interest and horror people. Article (2) of combat terrorism law No.94 of the year 2015 has described that the terrorism actions –inter alia– the terrorizing for breaching the public interest or endangering the safety of society and its interests, or casting terror among individuals. Art 29 of the same law added that “shall be punished by imprisonment everyone who establishes or use a website on the internet to promote thoughts lead to committing terrorism actions “. Consequently, the freedom of expression or circulating information and news could be classified as a terrorism action if it has considered -upon the absolute discretion of security authorities- constitute harmfully to the public interest and order. In addition to Law No.10 of the year 2003 in concern of regulating the communication which was the main legal tool to shutdown the Internet during 2011 revolution. All these legal provisions accumulated to accomplish the legal infrastructure to criminalize the freedom of expression online and other digital rights.
Article 6 of cybercrime law authorizes the investigation authority to issue a decision that allows surveillance and access to information and Article 2 stipulates that Internet service providers are required to keep and store customer usage data for a period of 180 days, including data that enables user identification, data related to the information system content, and data related to the equipment used. This means the Internet service providers will possess the data related to all user activities, including phone calls, text messages, websites navigated, and applications used on smartphones and computers. In another context, Article 25 of the cybercrime law criminalizes the breach of the principles and values of Egyptian families. Without clarifying and identifying the meaning of principles and values of Egyptian families, as a result in July 2020, some Egyptian women were arrested on charges related to this article, now known as the case of Tik-tok‘s girls()
In July 2020 Egyptian parliament issued law No.151 of 2020 concerning the protection of personal data. (Third) article of promulgating provision of the law stipulates that “the law will not apply to the personal data in the possession of national security bodies”. Article 1 identifies the national security bodies by “The Presidency of the Republic, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the Intelligence Service and the Administrative Oversight Authority” which reflect that all personal data are in the possession of national security bodies without real and legal justifications. The Egyptian legal framework was the strongest tool used to abuse digital rights in the time of Covide-19.
Impact of COVID-19 on digital rights
The above-mentioned legal framework was used in the time of COVID-19 to suppress digital rights in particular freedom of expression online, circulate the information, and digital press freedom. Egyptian authorities adopted preventive measures to reduce the outbreak of the virus. By end of December 2020 and according to the Ministry of Health, Egypt had recorded 138,062 confirmed cases, out of which 112,105 have recovered, 7,631 died , and 18,326 are still active cases(). To respond to the pandemic outbreak, the Egyptian government adopted a partial lockdown policy () such as suspending all events that require the presence of any gatherings of citizens. () These preventive measures were associated with restrictive measures against individuals from diverse spectrums. With the rapid outbreak of the virus, which increased from one single case to more than 5000 cases within two months, the citizens, civil society activists, journalists, and doctors began to “question” the announced figures, especially with the collapse of the medical systems in most developed countries and the failure to addressing the epidemic with recording tens of thousands of infected cases in a daily basis.
Freedom of Expression online in 2020
The Egyptian state dealt with the information that was circulating about the pandemic as fake news; accordingly, many citizens were subjected to prosecution for spreading fake news. For instance, case No. 535 of 2020 which classified as a national security case, included doctors, journalists, civil society activists, ordinary citizens, researchers who published news of the spread of the epidemic or addressed the causes of infection or death of one of the medical teams, as a further instance, the case included the arrest of a specialist in marketing medical products for his “criticism” of taken state’s policies to encounter Coronavirus (). In the same context, many other journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists were arrested within the Case No. (558) of 2020 -State Security case, (). It is worth noting that the cases of arrest and investigation took place in the period from March – June 2020, which is the same period that witnessed a daily increase in the number of infected people and the start of the escalation of the trend of infected people in an unexpected way, starting with hundreds at the end of March (507), reaching (17,989) infected people at the end of May and then the numbers jumped within one month to reach (46,898) infected people at the end of June, according to the publicly announced official statistics.
The Legal Criteria of Fake news
The above-mentioned practices and restriction on freedom of expression online imposed questions about the legality and constitutionality of the taken procedures? What are the legal criteria for fake news? What the victim publishes and criticizes, is it fake news or freedom of expression? The false news legally according to the text of article 102 bis, 188 of the Egyptian Penal Code refers to “publishing and broadcasting (intentionally and ill-intentionally) news, statements or rumors (false) that (which) disturb public peace, provoke panic among people, or harm their interests”. As it is clear that the text does not define false news, but at the same time it sets standards and controls by which the crime of spreading false news can be described. The Egyptian Court of Cassation, in its decision No. (451) for the year 22 ,20/5/1952) stated that “In order to apply the text of article 188 of the Penal Code concerning the publication of false news, the news should be false and the publisher is aware of this falsehood and intentionally publishing what It is false, and it added that the verdict must explain the falsehood of the news and the publisher knows of the falsehood of the news, otherwise the verdict is a shortage for not revealing the elements of the crime for which the appellant was indicted. ” Without a doubt, the pandemic not only had an adverse impact on digital rights but also reveal the digital exclusion for some groups.
Digital exclusion for some vulnerable groups
In terms of digital inclusion, in Egypt, many people are excluded from access to Internet for various reasons related to financial, technical, and geographic issues. This report will focus on one of most vulnerable groups which is the refugees’ community in Egypt. Refugees considered one of the most vulnerable groups hosted by Egypt are still excluded from access to the different digital rights in particular the right to connectivity. Referring to refugees should never understand as exclusion for other vulnerable groups, but refugees constitute the most vulnerable one. According to UNHCR-Egypt “The majority of refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt were already extremely vulnerable before the outbreak of COVID-19 and has been directly impacted by the evolving circumstances and many have lost their source of income and cannot afford to buy sufficient basic supplies or pay their rent.” () While access to the Internet has been essential for refugees to work, learn access to information and, express their opinions; its importance has increased dramatically in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. In September 2020, the Minister of Education announced the plan for the academic year 2020/2021, the plan adopted a hybrid system that includes physical attendance alongside distance learning mechanisms through the online broadcast platform for virtual classes, the electronic platform(). The new distance learning system raises a question about the situation of refugee students who cannot access the Internet due to 1) lack of access to the technology needed to access the Internet, 2) lack of appropriate computer or mobile devices that connect them to the internet, 3) high service fee rates for the Internet access. And 4) not recognized refugee IDs document by the Internet service providers so they cannot register for Internet services or buy mobile SIM cards. The UNHCR has indicated that one of the most significant challenges facing refugee students in light of the pandemic is limited access to hardware devices and the high cost of Internet connectivity.()
- It is strongly recommended to review the different legal provisions related to fake news and put a clear definition and Criteria for the fake news.
- To ensure refugees’ right to access to the Internet, connectivity, E-learning platforms, UNHCR and the Egyptian government should work together to ensure refugees have access to the needed software, hardware, and Internet and recognized refugees’ ID card to present to the service providers.
- It is strongly recommended to monitor the application of cybercrime laws through using the different Parliamentary oversight tools.
- The availability of personal data should be upon a request of the national security bodies submitted to the judicial body and be available after a justified court decision.
- The lawyers have to use the strategic litigation mechanisms to protect digital rights
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