Egyptian authorities must stop trials of TikTok content creators, guarantee freedom of expression

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Human rights organizations call on Egyptian authorities to stop trials of TikTok content creators and to guarantee freedom of expression

18 May 2021

The undersigned human rights organizations condemn the continued prosecution and trial of TikTok and Likee content creators, demanding that the Egyptian authorities stop these trials, release these defendants, and close these cases. The organizations also stress that the authorities should ensure the right to freedom of expression, including on social media, without arbitrary restrictions.

The Cairo Criminal Court is holding a session today to continue hearing a human trafficking case that involves TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawadda al-Adham. On 14 March 2021, the Public Prosecution referred both defendants to trial on human trafficking charges. Al-Adham is already in custody; on 18 April 2021, at a prior session, the court ordered the detention of Hossam as well and the police are still searching for her location, according to statements by judicial sources.

Last January, the Cairo Economic Appeals Court cleared Hossam of the charge of infringing on family values. Meanwhile, it annulled the prison sentence initially issued against Al-Adham in the same case, but upheld a fine of 300,000 pounds that she was ordered to pay. 

In 2020, 11 defendants were referred to trial for posting content on TikTok and Likee. They include eight content creators, a page admin, and two Likee employees. Seven of the defendants are still in prison; four of them remanded into custody pending trial and three of them serving jail terms. In September 2020, a prison sentence was issued in absentia against content creator Manar Sami. The trial of content creator Renad Emad is still ongoing, and the case of content creator Passant Mohamed is still open and pending investigation. The police are still looking for content creator Hannen Hossam.

The undersigned organizations affirm that these trials reflect the Egyptian authorities’ hostile attitude towards citizen free use of the internet. These trials also show how authorities are seeking to monitor social media accounts through the police and the Public Prosecution on the pretext of protecting family values. They attempt to do so based on Article 25 of Law No. 175 of 2018 on Combating Information Technology Crimes, which violates the constitution and contains vague terms that criminalize the right to freedom of expression.

The initial case involving Hossam and Al-Adham and the charge of infringing family values was marred by a number of violations during the arrest and investigation period; both defendants were targeted not because they violated the law, but because of what they represented as women exercising their right to free expression. Even prior to trial, the Public Prosecution issued statements in which it treated the defendants as guilty without solid legal evidence

This new human trafficking case, currently being heard by the criminal court, involves the prosecution of both women for activity that is practiced around the world and that is a part of what it means to be a content creator on social media: the management of social media pages to display visual content and obtain financial compensation as follower numbers increase. In the case files, police investigations attempt to describe this content creation as human trafficking. Meanwhile, the Public Prosecution has not levelled any charges against the tech firm BIGO Technology, which owns Likee, although the charges were based on the content creators’ endeavour to attract users to present visual content in exchange for financial compensation to be paid by the firm.

The undersigned organizations renew their call for the Egyptian authorities to stop these trials, including the human trafficking case against Hossam and al-Adham, and to release the defendants who continue to be held in pretrial detention or who have been sentenced to imprisonment in connection with these cases. The organizations call on authorities to guarantee freedom of expression, including on the internet, and to stop employing the vague provisions of the Law on Combating Information Technology Crimes to infringe on digital rights.

The undersigned organizations: 

  1. Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
  2. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
  3. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP). 
  4. Access Now.
  5. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
  6. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF). 
  7. El Nadeem Center against Violence and Torture.
  8. Egyptian Front for Human Rights.
  9. Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA). 
  10. The Freedom Initiative.
  11. Committee for Justice (CFJ). 
  12. Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms. 
  13. Intersection Association for Rights and Freedoms (IARF).
  14. The Regional Center for Rights and Liberties. 
  15. PEN America.