Egypt has responded to recent insurgent attacks by planning legislation that would further crackdown on the media, including threatening to jail journalists that contradict official statements and statistics.
The cabinet drafted a new terrorism law on Sunday that said reporters who published casualty figures and other information that differs from that released by the state could be imprisoned for at least two years.
An article in the legislation, which is still to be approved by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, states that those who report "false information on terrorist attacks that contradicts official statements" will be punished with a minimum two-year sentence. It also mentions deportation and house arrests, according to AFP.
The move comes after militants from an Islamic State (IS) linked group calling itself Sinai Province launched a series of coordinated attacks on army checkpoints in and around the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid last Wednesday, before besieging the central police station amid heavy fighting that lasted hours.
The military said in a subsequent statement that 17 soldiers had died, along with 100 of the attackers, but security and medical officials quoted by international and local outlets, including the Associated Press, reported that at least 60 troops were killed, making it the deadliest battle in the area since 1973's Arab-Israeli war.
'I hope no one interprets this as a restriction on media freedoms. It's just about numbers.'
Brigadier General Mohamed Samir later told the government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper that the army "was fighting two wars" against both insurgents the media, and accused foreign outlets of reporting the larger numbers in an attempt to "reduce the morale of the Egyptian people," the Financial Times reported.
Justice minister Ahmed el-Zind denied that threatening to jail journalists for contradicting the increasingly authoritarian government's official line would damage press freedom. "There was no choice but to impose some standards," he told AFP. "The government has the duty to defend citizens from wrong information… I hope no one interprets this as a restriction on media freedoms. It's just about numbers."
The foreign ministry also recently issued instructions to foreign journalists listing terminology that should and shouldn't be used to describe "terrorist groups." It instructed against using expressions including "jihadists," "fundamentalists," and even "Islamic State," as well as the acronyms "ISIS" and "ISIL," which are widely used to refer to IS. In their place it suggested "slaughterer, executioner, assassins, slayers, destroyers, eradicators."
But critics slammed the move as part of an increasing crackdown on members of the press that has seen the number of journalists behind bars rise to a record 18, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report released late last month.
"Imposing jail time for publishing news about any topic, including [the] government's account of public events, contradicts Egypt's own constitution and defies any standard of free press, CPJ's MENA Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour told VICE News.
"Journalists' basic function in any democratic society is to vet government behavior and Egypt is not an exception… Given that Egypt indiscriminately puts record numbers of journalists behind bars, according to our most recent census, mainly on national security and anti-terrorism charges, this law pushes further the government ability to and practice of crushing critical and independent voices inside the country."
The Sinai attack was the latest incident in a full-blown insurgency that is posing the biggest challenge yet to Sisi's rule. Also last week, state prosecutor Hisham Barakat died in a Cairo car bombing. Militants have killed hundreds of members of the security forces in the Sinai since democratically elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military, then headed by Sisi, almost exactly two years ago.
The government's "war on terrorism" has failed to curtail the violence, despite security measures including a night-time curfew, vastly increased troop presence, and a buffer zone along the Gaza border. The insurgency has also been used as a pretext to tighten security measures and attack Morsi's now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities blame for the violence.
Sisi's government launched a massive crackdown on Brotherhood supporters following Morsi's ouster, killing hundreds and jailing thousands more. It added the group to its terror list in December and sentenced hundreds to death in mass hearings. Morsi himself was also given a death sentence along with other senior members, a verdict which is currently subject to appeal.
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NGOs and political groups have also been attacked.
In response to Barakat's death, the cabinet also passed a new anti-terror law and request for a faster appeals process, a move critics viewed as restricting basic legal rights, but that Sisi said would help bring terrorists to justice faster. Special forces killed nine brotherhood members, including a member of Morsi's government in a raid on a Cairo apartment last week, the Associated Press said.
Press freedom has deteriorated under Sisi's rule, and international and local reporters in the country describe the situation as bleaker than ever, with all but a tiny minority of independent news outlets now peddling the official line. In October 2014, a group of Egyptian newspaper editors even released a declaration in which they promised to limit reports that showed state institutions in a bad light.
Meanwhile, foreign journalists are often accused of being agents seeking to destabilize Egypt and have been attacked by suspicious mobs at protests and detained by security forces as a result — in the case of one Le Monde journalist, just for talking politics in a cafe.
The Cairo correspondent for Spanish daily El Pais, Ricard Gonzalez, recently fled the country after a warning from Spanish authorities that he would be arrested. In a recent article written from Spain, he said he was still unsure why he was singled out. The three Al Jazeera television journalists convicted of terrorism offences in widely derided proceedings are now being retrialed. One, Peter Greste, has now been deported to Australia, but the two still in Egypt remain in legal limbo.
Local journalists suffer worse treatment, targeted with threats and smear campaigns for contradicting the official narrative or criticizing Sisi or the military.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck