Saudi-Egypt Unified Media Vision May Overcloud Dissent

A joint approach against fake news has the potential to harm online content producers who see the medium as a venue for dissent.

In a position consistent with their growing bilateral ties, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have decided to form a working group to develop a unified media vision to keep malicious activities at bay.

“Every individual worldwide has become a mobile media station with a voice, image, and content. The whole world is communicating with individuals in the Far East and the West by voice and image, as the globe lives in the now. Time is gold, and instant and direct broadcasting has become a reality,” Saudi acting Media Minister Majid Bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi was quoted as saying by the Middle East Monitor.

“Lies, sedition, malicious people and those who target the Arabs, Egyptians and Saudis must be confronted with a media institution that aims at educating our sons and daughters to these media attacks,” he added.

Another silencing act?

Though it is not clear how the proposed mission will prevent media aggression, Saudi’s track record of suppressing civil liberties and political rights cannot be discounted in any case. According to Freedom in the World 2021 Country Report released by US-based human rights watchdog Freedom House in March, “the government controls domestic media content and heavily influences regional print and satellite-television coverage. Journalists can be imprisoned for a variety of vaguely defined crimes. In December 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that 24 journalists were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia.”

The regime has a penchant for the criminalization of dissent and pervasive surveillance. “A 2011 royal decree amended the press law to criminalize, among other things, any criticism of the country’s grand mufti, the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or government officials; violations can result in fines and forced closure of media outlets. All blogs and websites must have a Ministry of Information license or face fines and possible closure,” says Freedom House’s flagship annual report, which rates the monarchy as a ‘not free’ country. “In line with its extensive system of social media regulation, the kingdom invests considerable resources in automated ‘bot’ and other accounts that influence and distort the social media environment and target prominent users,” the report adds.

Now let us look at Egypt, where journalists are at increased risk of arrest in connection with their work. The Freedom House report states the country’s media landscape is clouded by pro-government outlets. A number of private television channels and newspapers have been launched or acquired by business people and individuals tied to the military and intelligence services in recent times. Independent reporting is suppressed through restrictive laws, intimidation, and other means, but a few independent outlets still operate. In December 2020, the CPJ found that as many as 27 journalists were in detention in the country, which also carries a ‘not free’ tag.

According to the report, the public prosecutor’s office established a media monitoring wing tasked with advising the media on the proper coverage of cases in 2019. Two laws were ratified the year before for regulating press freedom. The Media Regulation Law prescribes prison sentences for journalists who “incite violence” and permits censorship without judicial approval, among other provisions. The Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law allows authorities to block any website considered to be a threat to national security, a broad stipulation that is vulnerable to abuse. Websites of independent news and information entities are regularly blocked. “According to the domestic digital rights group Masaar, 628 links and 596 websites had been blocked in Egypt as of September 2020,” the report says, in a direct reflection of what Press freedom means in Egypt.

Considering these facts, intense monitoring of online content producers and gagging of dissent can take a turn for the worse. Anything that the governments consider as fake or malicious becomes so, irrespective of the truth. Similarly, anything that authorities think is positive, even if it has no grain of truth, can get promoted widely. Though this has been happening all along, it may now take a more unified form.

Birds of a feather

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, has consistently cracked the whip on his perceived challengers ever since his elevation as crown prince on June 21, 2017. In March last year, three senior princes, including Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the younger brother of King Salman, and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the king’s nephew, were detained for allegedly planning a coup. Several businessmen and members of the elite were sent behind bars in massive anti-corruption drives, though such acts were seen as a bid to build the crown prince’s image and to consolidate his power in the royal family.

Outside the palace circles, there have been more teething issues to deal with, including the murder of prominent dissident-journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Saudi officials blamed rogue intelligence agents, but according to a UN special rapporteur, the evidence suggested the crown prince’s involvement. In 2019, a Saudi court sentenced five men to death on murder charges – they were commuted last year – while three others got prison sentences. MBS was never officially investigated.

On the other hand, Egypt is far away from being a democracy, though the 2011 Arab Spring to oust Hosni Mubarak had raised public hopes. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power by overthrowing democratically elected Mohammed Morsi in a military coup in 2013. No meaningful opposition is present in the Mediterranean country as dissent can lead to criminal prosecution and jail terms. The military’s involvement in the country’s politics has grown in the last seven years, but el-Sisi has kept himself safe by constantly shaking up the military power corridors. He has replaced over a hundred high-ranking state and military officials since 2017 and has mostly installed his trusted aides or relatives in those positions.

While Saudi’s aid largesse has helped el-Sisi to shore up Egypt’s economy, it can be seen as an indirect extension of the monarchy’s support to scuttle voices in favor of democracy following the Arab Spring. Much like Cairo, Saudi sees itself pitted against Turkey over several issues, including the Khashoggi murder, though efforts have been made recently to mend ties.

As right to differ is not taken lightly in both countries, one can only wish fake news away. 

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