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A light in the dark for social justice in Egypt’s ‘digital black hole’
Egypt is one of many countries in the world where freedom of expression, association and assembly are commonly suppressed. Those wishing to speak freely about the political situation in their country face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as inciting or participating in protests, disseminating “false rumours”, defaming officials and damaging morality. Censorship of material that is critical of the government is also commonplace, often in the name of the “fight against terrorism”. As of August 2017, some 130 websites have been banned by the Egyptian government under allegations of “supporting terrorism” and “spreading lies”. Banned websites include news organisations, such as Al Jazeera and the websites of human rights groups including Reporters Without Borders, who had spoken out about the issue, describing Egypt as “one of the world’s largest prisons for journalists.” Faced with this unprecedented wave of censorship, Egyptian online media are trying to resist the suppression of their material and overcome the serious attack on freedom of expression and information.
Khaled Elbalshy and the Al Bedaiah online newspaper are one such force that is boldly and relentlessly pursuing the cause of free speech, despite facing judicial and online harassment. Elbalshy is the chief editor of the Al Bedaiah newspaper, which specialises in covering social conflicts and political prisoners. Al Bedaiah is one of the many news websites that is blocked by the government in Egypt. Therefore users may only access it via a VPN or by reading the article on a third party host such as Facebook. Elbalshy tries to do everything he can to make sure the articles can be accessed in his country, but the crackdown on VPN providers and block on his own website has meant the number of Egyptians who can access Al Bedaiah articles is falling. There is also a risk that access to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter could soon be curtailed.
Elbalshy refuses to give in, however, and seeks every platform available to shine a light on violations committed by the Egyptian government. He is an active human rights campaigner, who established the Front to Defend Journalists and Freedoms which has helped to secure the release of several journalists from detention. He himself has been subject to judicial harassment; on 21 March 2017, he and two other members of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate Council, were given a one-year prison sentence, suspended for three years, which he is planning to appeal. The case was considered by human rights groups as punishment for the Syndicate for its role in defending its members and freedom of the press. It can also be seen as a personal punishment for Elbalshy who had been subject for many kinds of harassment by different governments.
Elbalshy and the Al Bedaiah website remain sparks of hope in Egypt’s ‘digital black hole’; shining light on the truth that the government is so keen to supress and informing those inside the country and across the outside world about the injustices that journalists and civil society members are facing.
Al Bedaiah’s founder Khaled Elbalshy was a winner of the 2017 Nelson Mandela-Graça Machel Innovation Awards in the Individual Activist category.