Memos from Egypt’s Interior Ministry that were leaked to the media on Tuesday outline strategies for deflecting public outrage over recent arrests and suggest a gag order on the case of an Italian student abducted and killed in Cairo.
Documents headlined as a normal news roundup were sent to reporters from the ministry’s official email account, but inside were memos apparently written for internal consumption.
The memos recommend that the ministry not back down in its conflict with the journalist union over the recent arrest of two reporters from inside ts headquarters, and underline ways to improve the ministry’s image.
One note suggested the prosecutor general impose a gag order on the investigation into the killing of Giulio Regeni, who was abducted in January and severely tortured before his body was found several days later on the outskirts of Cairo. The ministry has said security forces were not involved in the killing, which has strained ties between Egypt and Italy.
Egypt’s journalist union has called for the dismissal of the interior minister and launched an open-ended sit-in at its headquarters in downtown Cairo over the two journalists’ arrests, describing them as “illegal” and “unprecedented.”
Some 200 people gathered outside the Journalists’ Syndicate building on Tuesday, chanting slogans such as “journalists are not terrorists” – a reference to terrorism charges some media workers now face in Egypt.
Around the same time, the prosecutor general’s office issued a gag order on the investigation of the two journalists, state news agency MENA reported. The order covers television, print, online and foreign media, saying that the charges were criminal in nature.
Many newspapers splashed the sit-in, which began Monday, on their front page. State-run daily Al-Ahram, which is close to the presidency and normally a fervent government supporter, ran an editorial calling for Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar’s resignation and saying it was inevitable.
One leaked memo described the situation as a “deliberate escalation” by certain union leaders who intended to exploit the move for internal political gain, adding that “a ferocious media campaign should be expected by all the press in solidarity with the union.”
It also said that the ministry cannot back down from its position and should instead focus on communicating publicly that the journalist union was in the wrong because it had harbored men sought under an arrest warrant.
“(The ministry) cannot retreat from this position now; a retreat would mean a mistake was made, and if there was a mistake who is responsible and who is to be held to account?” it added.
Leaks of documents and recorded phone calls are not uncommon in Egypt. In February last year, audio was leaked of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi allegedly poking fun at the immense oil wealth of Gulf countries that have aided Egypt, saying “money there is like rice.” But leaks from the Interior Ministry are rare.
Syndicate members have been calling for the release of 29 journalists they say were detained in recent weeks. Hundreds of activists, journalists and others were arrested ahead of and during demonstrations protesting el-Sissi’s decision to hand two Red Sea islands over to Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s main foreign backer.
The secretary-general of the union, Gamal Abdel Rahim, said police were trying “to disguise their crime by driving a wedge between journalists and the public, but the public knows very well that the union is their sanctuary and won’t be deceived.”
The memos also proposed measures to boost the ministry’s image and media monitoring capabilities, such as using retired police generals to communicate its message in the media, and assigning more staff to monitor news websites on a 24-hour basis.
In a final email after the documents were sent out repeatedly, the ministry said it had suffered a “technical malfunction” and would switch to a Gmail address.
A ministry official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, would neither confirm nor deny whether the account had been hacked. The official declined to verify or deny the accuracy of the memos, or say if they were sent intentionally or by accident. “It is under investigation,” the official said.
Outside the syndicate, police blocked off the surrounding streets later in the day, preventing anyone who wasn’t a union member from entering the area.
To commemorate World Press Freedom Day, several journalists covered their mouths with gags and bound their hands to protest Egypt’s media restrictions, while others hung a black banner from the building’s facade.
The two journalists, who were arrested and later accused of having weapons at their homes, are being held for an initial investigation period of 15 days. They work for a website that highlights youth movements and reports on the arrest of activists and journalists.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – once the country’s most organized political movement – denounced the crackdown on journalists.
Press freedoms have always been restricted in Egypt, including during the turbulent yearlong reign of President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, who hailed from the Brotherhood.
But reporters have faced much greater pressure under el-Sissi, who led the military overthrow of Morsi in 2013. Since then, Egypt’s public and private media have been dominated by el-Sissi supporters who often cast his critics as traitors.
“This is the state of the military repression, that muzzles mouths and restricts freedoms,” Brotherhood spokesman Mohammed Muntasir said on his Facebook page.