Egypt 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 on Thursday that its 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.
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Michaelson reported on unpublished research by Canadian infectious diseases specialists estimating an outbreak size of more than 19,000 cases in Egypt. The scientists 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 tweeted her story, was summoned by Egyptian officials and told 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 on Wednesday said there have been 456 cases of the new coronavirus in the country, including 21 deaths. 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 organisation 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 US-based watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists. Authorities have imprisoned dozens of reporters and occasionally expelled some foreign journalists.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Hussein has been imprisoned without trial in Egypt for more than three years over allegations of producing “fake news”, accusations the network vehemently denies.
The Qatar-based network last week urged authorities in Egypt to immediately release Hussein and other jailed journalists.
“It is unacceptable that Mahmoud has been held by the Egyptian authorities for nearly 1,200 days for merely being a journalist with baseless accusations and trumped-up charges,” the acting director-general of Al Jazeera Media Network, Mostefa Souag, said.
“Under current circumstances, with the spread of the coronavirus and the health hazards associated with it, Mahmoud and other journalists are exposed to extreme risks,” Souag added.
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 spread “rumours” and “fake news” about reported cases in the country.