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Egypt media group chides reporters for questioning army statements

'If you have a body count that does not come from the army, then it must come from the terrorists,' State Information Service chairman tells MEE
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reviewing military equipment during a visit to the Sinai Peninsula following a wave of deadly attacks on armed forces by the Islamic State militants, 4 July, 2015 (AFP)

CAIRO - According to Article 33 of a draft of a new anti-terrorism law, journalists working in Egypt could face prosecution and up to two years in jail if they report “false” information on attacks that contradicts official statements.

According to governmental officials, the wording of the provision requires proof of “intent” and “malice”.

“I hope no one interprets this as a restriction on media freedoms,” Minister of Justice Ahmed al-Zind told AFP on Sunday.

As drafts of the new anti-terrorism bill and confirmations of Article 33 started circulating, journalists received emails questioning their articles on attacks in North Sinai perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS) Sinai Province group on 2 July.

“[Your article] has 4 anonymous sources, and your count of dead soldiers was incorrect, but others like Wall Street Journal mentioned the right number (17). So will you run a correction or plan to post one?” read one email sent to Middle East Eye by a “reporter” at the group FactCheckEgypt (FCE).

According to the armed forces spokesman, the number of soldiers who died in the attack on Sheikh Zuweid last week is 17, while other sources such as Sky News and the Associated Press (AP) had reported a much higher figure of around 70 casualties.

Most newspapers and websites around the world have quoted that number, as the official figure had remained the same while the battle continued. The official state funeral for the soldiers who died in Sinai was cancelled, a move that some saw as a way to hide the truth about the real number of casualties.

Even the Wall Street Journal - mentioned as an example of correct journalism practice in the email - ran a paragraph questioning the official statement and the government’s accountability.

“The statement didn’t explain the discrepancy with earlier official statements indicating 60 soldiers had been killed and wounded in combat. None of the casualty tolls could be independently confirmed, as the government maintained a two-year restriction on media access to the northern Sinai,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in the article after reporting the official body count.

“This is a military zone and communications were cut off during the day,” the chairman of the State Information Service (SIS), Salah Sadek, told MEE. “What other sources can you have other than the official one coming from the army?”

A protester has a tape over his mouth during a demonstration for the release of Egyptian-British Al-Jazeera journalist Ahmed Mansour in front of the criminal court in Berlin on June 22, 2015 (AFP)

Journalists have been banned from North Sinai since the area was declared a military zone two years ago. Only a few local reporters continue to work under tough restrictions.

“If you have a body count that does not come from the army, then it must come from the terrorists,” Sadek said, rebuffing the idea of independent sources on the ground.

When MEE asked about the fact that the battle took place in a city of 60,000 people, Sadek explained that “locals cannot move on the ground if the army and the terrorists are fighting. And even if they could, why wouldn’t they use their names? What evidence do they have to confute the official numbers?”

Journalists or locals reporting on troop movements or military affairs face prosecution. Most of the local journalists - some with a lengthy experience working for international media outlets - already have cases pending in military courts. Thus, many refuse to use their real names to do their job.

“Anonymous sources are from the terrorists, there is no other possibility,” Sadek told MEE. “A local who wants to contradict the official numbers or statements would not be afraid of using his real name if he had evidence of what he is claiming,” he added.

“Why would the government lie about it? Those are the official numbers; can there be any other exact number other than the official ones? It is in the mindset of the army to show the crimes and atrocities committed by the terrorists and to protect the nation,” Sadek said.

The focus on numbers and body count is crucial because “a higher number of casualties has an impact on the morale of the Egyptian people, so it becomes a matter of national security,” he added.

On Monday, the armed forces spokesperson published a statement on an official Facebook page saying that “Egypt fought two wars at the same time in the past days. One on the ground against the villainous coward enemy covered in the mantle of Islam, a religion that does not belong to them.”

The other was “a media war waged by biased foreign media platforms in the frame of the fourth generation warfare and information warfare,” the spokesman wrote echoing a recent speech given by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

FactCheckEgypt

It is not the first time that the Egyptian government has issued a statement criticising what they deem “biased coverage” or lectured foreign media on how to report on Egyptian affairs.

On Saturday, the Foreign Ministry issued a style guide for foreign journalists on how to describe terrorist groups. The leaflet suggested using terms like extremists, savages, murderers, fanatics, slaughterers, executioners, assassins, slayers, destroyers and eradicators, but to avoid any religious-based terminology. Thus, “jihadists,” “Islamists” and “Islamic State” are terms that should not be used.

What is almost unprecedented, however, is the emergence of a body called FactCheckEgypt that has emailed journalists directly asking them to report the official number of casualties or to avoid using anonymous sources. In Egypt nowadays people are scared of talking to a reporter even when they are buying gas or vegetables.

“FactCheckEgypt was started a couple of weeks ago, but it has not been launched officially yet,” explained Sadek. “We are still on trial, we opted for a soft landing and the attack on Sheikh Zuweid was a good test for us,” he said.

The group, Sadek explains, aims to verify numbers and the use of sources by “any media [source] who reports about Egypt,” although the emails were so far only sent to foreign media. “We will criticise and fact-check Egyptian newspapers as well,” Sadek promised.

It is not clear, however, what will happen if journalists decline to change their articles, especially if the new anti-terrorism law and Article 33 are approved. “If you do not comply repeatedly, we will move to another stage,” said Sadek.

What that stage will entail, however, “it is not clear yet. We might make a case according to the law … If you are doing your job and reporting the official body count or you do not intentionally report false information, you have nothing to worry about.”

'Culture of accountability'

Even the status of the new organisation is not completely clear as Sadek claims that it is “an independent NGO affiliated to the State Information Service.” The SIS describes itself as a "media mouthpiece of the Egyptian State that promotes the image of Egypt abroad”.

“FactCheckEgypt is affiliated to the SIS, but it’s not a governmental agency. It is independent.”

Sadek told MEE that the new watchdog is still in its embryonic phase and did not want to disclose how many employees were working for it.

“All I can say is that there are no funds for it and there are Egyptian journalists employed by various news agencies and newspapers who are working voluntarily for FactCheckEgypt.”

The current editor is Ayman Walash, an “expert on political affairs” working for the SIS and the Ministry of Investment according to his Twitter account - an infinite collection of retweets of Sisi’s official tweets.

“Yes, Ayman Walash works for SIS and he is the editor for now, but just because he is helping build the structure for the platform,” Sadek said.

To abide to the international standards in fact-checking, reporters at FCE were trained for free by iMediaEthics, an American media watchdog and organisation co-founded and heralded by Rhonda Roland Shearer. Shearer is already known to some foreign correspondents working in Egypt for her own attacks against the New York Times Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick and the Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley, among others.

“We chose iMediaEthics because we were in contact with them and they offered a free training. They have a credible, responsible, strong reputation, but we are open to working with any other media organisation that could help us develop,” said Sadek.

“We want to bring a new culture of accountability to Egypt. That is why we are abiding to the international rules of fact checking, the same ones that I am sure other fact-checking organisations have adopted in your country,” Sadek continued.

Asked if the organisation would also fact-check official government statements, he responded: “We hope that one day we will be able to fact-check the government too … The law applies to everyone. We are not at that point of course, but I am dreaming of the day we will be able to fact-check and criticise any governmental official’s statement,” he said.

“Our motto is truth, just the truth.”