CAIRO (AP) — Egypt has expelled a correspondent for The Guardian over a report citing a study that challenged the official count of coronavirus cases in the Arab world’s most populous country, the British daily reported Thursday.
The paper’s correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, left the country last week after Western diplomats informed her that Egyptian security services wanted her to leave “immediately,” the daily said.
Michaelson had reported on unpublished research by Canadian infectious disease specialists estimating an outbreak size of over 19,000 cases in Egypt. The scientists had used data from early March when Egypt officially had only three confirmed cases, according to Michaelson’s report published on March 15.
The following day, Michaelson, along with a New York Times reporter who had tweeted her story, were summoned by Egyptian officials and told that they were accused of “misreporting” and “spreading panic,” the Guardian said.
A day later, Egypt’s State Information Services, the government-body overseeing foreign correspondents, revoked Michaelson’s press credentials and released a statement accusing her of citing a “misleading” study based on “false conclusions” and “speculation”.
Egyptian authorities threatened to shut the Guardian’s bureau in Cairo if the paper refused to retract the story and run an official apology, the statement said.
Egypt’s on Wednesday said there have been 456 cases of the new coronavirus in the country, including 21 fatalities. In recent weeks, the government has beefed up precautionary measures to contain the pandemic by shutting down schools, restaurants and recreational facilities, reducing the workforce in public and private businesses and eventually imposing an 11-hour daily curfew. State-run media have called on people to observe social-distancing and stay home.
Michaelson, who lived in and reported on Egypt since 2014, boarded a Germany-bound flight along with stranded foreign nationals last Friday, a day after Egypt suspended all commercial flights to stop the spread of the virus.
The Guardian said it offered to publish a rebuttal by Egyptian authorities of the Canadian study but received no response to the offer.
“We regret that the Egyptian authorities have chosen to revoke accreditation from a reporter working for a trusted, independent media organization like the Guardian,” a spokesperson for the paper said.
Egypt remains among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to the U.S.-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists. Authorities have imprisoned dozens of reporters and occasionally expelled some foreign journalists.
As fears of an outbreak keep mounting, Egyptian authorities are seeking to suppress any attempts to challenge the official narrative. Earlier this month, police arrested three people for Facebook posts about the coronavirus, saying they had spread “rumors” and “fake news” about reported cases in the country.
Last week media freedom group Reporters Without Borders condemned the Egyptian government’s response to Michaelson’s article as an attempt to exploit the coronavirus and clamp down on the press.
“This sanction is disproportionate,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of its Middle East desk. “By taking advantage of the coronavirus-related information crisis, the authorities are abusing their prerogatives and are trying to use their regulators…to control what journalists report.”