Cairo wants to amend a terrorism law that snares newspapers and channels in a fresh attack on dissent.

Egypt is amending a terrorism law that will allow authorities to prosecute newspapers, news channels and websites as terrorist organisations.

The changes being brought to the Law Regulating Terrorist List No. 8 of 2015, broadens the scope of the entities, that could be seen as a threat to national security, to include "TV channels, print media, radio stations and social media."

The move raises concerns about the increasing efforts by President Abdel Fattah el Sisi to curb any sort of criticism of his government, which is struggling to revive an economy riddled with corruption and inefficiency. 

Since he took power in a military coup in 2013, hundreds of political opponents and civil rights activists have been jailed or forced into exile. At least 26 journalists were in prison at the end of 2019, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

"This amendment is extremely worrying because it likens media outlets to terrorist organisations," said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF's (Reporters Without Borders) Middle East desk. 

"The Egyptian authorities have been using the terrorist threat to harass the media for years. This de facto situation is now going to be enshrined in the law."

The government has shut dozens of news organisations in recent years in a crackdown against critics. 

In a bizarre attempt to justify the changes in the law, Cairo said it was being done to comply with the international requirement to strengthen anti-money laundering controls. In the text, it even cites the Financial Action Task Force as one of the reasons. 

Government lawmakers backing the amendment say it is being done to stop people from spreading information on social media which can undermine national security

"This is just another way to mute the criticism of the government's failure on multiple fronts," Dr Hamza Zawba, an Egyptian journalist living in Istanbul, told TRT World

"From the economy to the negotiations for the share in Nile's water, nothing is working out for it." 

Egypt has intensified its crackdown on media organisations in recent years.
Egypt has intensified its crackdown on media organisations in recent years. (AP Archive)

Egypt is locked in a diplomatic tussle with Ethiopia over its share of water that flows down the River Nile, Africa's longest.

Tough economic reforms that included cuts in fuel subsidies and a sharp devaluation under an IMF programme had yet to lift millions of people from poverty and joblessness. 

Sisi, a former military commander who toppled the elected government of late Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi, has shown little appetite for dissent. 

The controversial changes in the law coincide with the criticism it faces for importing natural gas from Israel. Itself a major gas producer, Egypt has released limited information about the $19.5 billion deal.

The office of news organisation Mada Masr, which in 2018 exposed how the Egyptian military stands to gain from the Israeli gas import project, was recently raided by security forces. 

No space for dissent

Independent news organisations, especially news websites and blogs, have faced increasing restrictions in recent years. Under a series of measures taken since 2016, authorities have routinely blocked websites and made it difficult for them to register as a media organisation. 

Social media, which played a vital role in the 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, is, particularly under pressure. 

Last year, the country's media regulator introduced regulations that allow it to block websites and even social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers without obtaining a court order. 

This comes on top of the curbs faced by non-governmental organisations, which Egyptian authorities accuse of working for foreign interests. 

Security agencies have been given sweeping powers to decide the fate of civil rights groups, many of which were active in mobilising protests in Mubarak's dictatorial regime. 

Activists can face up to 25 years in prison if police accuse them of receiving funding from abroad. 

The Sinai is a desert peninsula in eastern Egypt where the military has killed thousands of people it claims are Daesh supporters. Yet the government has not allowed independent observers to investigate reports of civilian casualties and has effectively imposed a media blackout in the area.

"Egyptian authorities have been using counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts to unjustly prosecute bloggers, activists, and critics for their peaceful criticism," according to Human Rights Watch. 

"Some cases have been transferred to the Emergency State Security Courts, a parallel judicial system operating since October 2017, under the state of emergency that the government claims is being used only against terrorists and drug traffickers." 

Source: TRT World