CAIRO (Reuters) – The sentencing on human trafficking charges of two Egyptian women with large followings on social media sites TikTok and Likee has alarmed campaigners who say the accusations are unfounded and signal a deepening crackdown on internet freedoms.
The two women were among at least nine first prosecuted last year on charges of violating family values after posting videos online in which they danced and sang and invited millions of followers to make money on the social media platforms by becoming influencers.
After those charges were dropped on appeal, new charges of human trafficking were brought against Haneen Hossam, a 20-year-old student, and Mawada al-Adham, a 22-year-old model. Hossam was sentenced last month to 10 years in jail and Adham to six years, both women accused of exploiting children for material profit because some minors appeared in the videos.
Two employees of social media platforms and a blogger on one of the sites were also sentenced to six years. All were fined 200,000 Egyptian pounds ($12,800).
Passing sentence, Judge Mohamed al-Guindy said social media sites were using “debauchery” to attract people and constituted a moral threat to family life.
“There is no family censorship, and negligence in some families has been driving them to a moral collapse,” he said.
Egypt’s public prosecution department declined to comment, and the State Information Service did not respond to requests. Likee said in an email it could not comment on active legal cases but that it respected local culture and customs and cooperated with local authorities as required. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
Judicial sources said the prosecution had launched an investigation into the case in its role as a defender of moral values.
The campaign frustrates some activists who argue that prosecutors should focus more on efforts to expose sexual assault in Egypt, which were driven by a wave of testimonies last year that echoed the international MeToo movement.
Use of a 2010 human trafficking law aimed primarily at combating child marriage is unprecedented in such cases and was designed to stir up moral panic, said Lobna Darwish of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
“It is part of a moral campaign led by the prosecution toward society in general,” she said.
Amnesty International has accused authorities are deploying “repressive new tactics to control cyber space” in the TikTok cases.
In a statements on the cases last year, the public prosecution talked of protecting “social national security” and called itself a “guardian of social morals”. It also said it was guarding Egypt’s cyber border from “forces of evil” and that freedoms would not be restricted.
Officials from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi down say they are striving to protect women from violence and empower them economically.
The criminal court is yet to issue the reasoning for the trafficking convictions.
Some Egyptians on social media have called for the platforms used by the women to be banned. Others expressed dismay at the verdict against Hossam and Adham, saying they were acting no differently to celebrities appearing in adverts and films.
Fatma Serag, a lawyer at Egypt’s Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which has tracked the case, said minors who appeared in the videos did so with the consent of their families and there was no intention of abuse.
Lawyers for both the women say they will appeal.
Hossam did not attend her trial and was arrested shortly after appearing in a video in which she protested her innocence and urged Sisi to pardon her.
She can claim a retrial in the case because she was tried in absentia.
Adham’s lawyer Mahmoud al-Suwaify said his client was a minor at the time of the videos in which she was accused of violating family values. Even if she had been at fault, the trafficking charge and the punishment were overblown, he said.
(Reporting by Cairo bureau)