Egypt arrests local journalist in accelerating crackdown

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian officials have detained a journalist at a major newspaper on terrorism charges, his lawyer said, a move sharply condemned Thursday by a global press advocacy group.

Security officers burst into the home of Haisam Hasan Mahgoub in the capital of Cairo earlier this week, confiscating his phone and arresting him, lawyer Karim Abdelrady said.

Mahgoub, a regular correspondent at the independent the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm, was questioned by prosecutors Wednesday and detained on charges of joining and financing a “terrorist group” as well as spreading "fake news" that threatens national security, Abdelrady said.

The prosecutors did not specify what constituted “fake news.” Egyptian officials have increasingly deployed the vague accusation to silence and jail critics in the government’s sweeping and often indiscriminate crackdown on dissent.

Another journalist, freelance photographer Moataz Abdel Wahab, faces charges in the same case, Abdelrady added.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog, linked Mahgoub’s arrest to a clampdown that has accelerated in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, noting that Mahgoub had recently covered human interest stories about the health crisis.

“While some governments worldwide pardon prisoners during the time of COVID-19, Egypt is determined to keep its prisons full of journalists instead of letting them cover the pandemic and other news events freely,” said Sherif Mansour, the group’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator.

Egypt’s interior ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Since coming to power in 2013, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has sought to quash opposition, branding his critics as terrorists and forcing news outlets to hew the official line or disappear.

The government is using the COVID-19 emergency to further tighten its grip, rights groups say. In March, Egypt expelled a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian over an article that indicated the coronavirus infection rate might be higher than officially reported. Over a dozen people have been detained or slapped with steep fines over social media posts or reporting about the outbreak, according to Amnesty International.

Last week, el-Sissi approved amendments to the country’s emergency law, citing the coronavirus. Officials claim the new measures are needed to address the legal “vacuum” caused by the coronavirus outbreak.