NEW YORK—Egypt’s use of the specter of terrorism to justify blocking public access to legitimate news websites is an egregious violation of freedom of the press and the public’s right to access information, PEN America said in a statement today.

On Wednesday, May 24, the Egyptian state-run news agency MENA announced that the government would block access to 21 websites, alleging that they “spread lies” and “supported terrorism.” It is unclear under what authority the sites have been blocked.

Although an official list of the blocked websites has not yet been made available, security sources have claimed that all of the sites are either affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or are funded by the government of Qatar. The Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Egypt in 2013, is the Islamic social movement affiliated with the rule of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown in a coup that same year, resulting in the installation of current President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The El-Sisi government has alleged that Qatar is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. 

News sites that have been blocked include Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera and Mada Masr, an Egyptian news site founded in mid-April 2013 by a group of Egyptian journalists from the shuttered Egypt Independent English-language newspaper. On Sunday, May 28, the ban reportedly widened to include at least two more outlets, the Daily News Egypt and the state-owned Egynews. HuffPost Arabi, the Arabic-language version of the American media outlet Huffington Post, was also blocked.

As of Monday, May 29, access to several of the websites has reportedly been restored to users of certain internet providers. 

During President Sisi’s tenure, free expression in Egypt has continued to deteriorate. Egypt is currently one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, with 25 journalists behind bars. The website blockade follows a recent set of raids on news outlets; earlier this month, Egyptian police raided the offices of two news sites, seizing equipment and questioning staff about their political coverage.

“Blocking access to internationally-acknowledged news sources like Al-Jazeera and Mada Masr suggests the Egyptian government is more interested in shutting down dissent than in its claimed rationale of combatting terrorism,” said James Tager, Free Expression Programs Manager at PEN America. “This newest action on the part of Egyptian authorities should cause concern for all those who believe in press freedom. The Egyptian government cannot simply invoke ‘support for terrorism’ as a rationale for shutting down news sites without taking substantive steps to ensure that it is upholding the rights to free expression and access to information for the Egyptian people.”

PEN America, the free expression advocacy organization, advocates for the freedom to write and on behalf of imprisoned writers around the world. In May 2016, PEN America gave the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to Ahmed Naji, an Egyptian writer who had been imprisoned for his work.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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