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PoliticsMiddle East

Egypt: Crackdown endangers the last bastion of free press

September 14, 2022

Egyptian authorities have Mada Masr in their sights once again after critical reporting. But the editor of the country's last independent news source told DW that they will continue their work.

Mada Masr's journalists (left to right): Rana Mamdouh, Sara Seif Eddin, editor-in-chief Lina Attalah and Beesan Kassab in front of the Cairo Appeals Prosecution after being released on bail.
Mada Masr's journalists (left to right): Rana Mamdouh, Sara Seif Eddin, editor-in-chief Lina Attalah and Beesan Kassab in front of Cairo's Appeals Prosecution after being released on bailImage: Mada Masr

Following an investigative report about corruption within one of Egypt's largest political parties, the country's last independent news site has come under fire from the judiciary.

"We expected repercussions on this article," Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, told DW. "This is never a reason to not publish a story, as long as the evidence is 100% airtight and cross-verified."

The article, published in late August, highlighted "serious financial infractions" by prominent members of the "Nation's Future Party" that "should lead to their departure from the political scene."

The repercussions turned out to be of a different kind, however.

Instead of seeing party members go, Attalah and the three authors of the article were called in for interrogation at Cairo's Appeals Prosecution a week later.

They were accused of slander and defamation of Nation's Future Party members, as well as the publication of false news intended to disturb public peace.

While Attalah was released after paying a bail of 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,032), and the other three journalists after paying 5,000 pounds ($258) each, it is still unclear if the prosecution will take their case to court.

"We really hope that the judiciary will drop the charges out of respect for the work of independent journalists," Attalah told DW.

For her, this would be a triumph on behalf of the public interest. "A powerful political party should be treated as a public entity and should be subjected to criticism in this capacity," the award-winning journalist said.

Lina Attalah (center) at Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum 2018
Lina Attalah (center) at Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum 2018Image: DW/R. Oberhammer

However, another worrying accusation came up during the interrogation: that Attalah was running Madr Masa without a license.

"I've been submitting requests for licensing since 2018 but have been constantly ignored by the relevant authorities," she said.

And without such a license, the future of Mada Masr is in limbo.

Since the introduction of the  "NGO Law" last year, civil rights organizations and non-governmental organizations are obliged to register with the government and allow insight in their work and funding.

The law also bans collaborations with foreign groups or publishing the results of opinion polls without government approval, and prohibits any action that undermines "national security" or is "political."

 Organizations in violation of this law face fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds.

For the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, the denial of the license and the interrogation of Mada Masr's journalists "exemplify the significant pressure to which journalists in Egypt have been subjected to, as well as the government's will to muzzle the press in general," the organization's Middle East spokesperson Pauline Adès-Mével told DW.

This view is echoed by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked Egypt as the third-worst jailer of journalists in 2021.

A number of sources estimate that up to 500 media outlets and websites have been closed or banned there over the past decade. 

"Following the ongoing crackdown and silencing of independent journalism over the years, an enormous amount of self-censorship has been produced in the Egyptian press," Timothy E. Kaldas, a Policy Fellow at the Washington-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

He added that "fear and intimidation is a much more effective and inexpensive mechanism for controlling the press."

Kaldas said that he is not surprised that "people within the regime continually attack Mada Masr, as it is one of the few places where they don't control the narrative and can't force Mada to reproduce the propaganda as most of the Egyptian media does."

Ongoing pressure

Since the launch in 2013, authorities have viewed the online news outlet as a nuisance, even blocking access to the website in May 2017. Since then, Mada Masr has only been accessible via secured virtual private networks (VPN) in Egypt, or through mirrored sites that circumvent the blocking.

In 2019, following a report about the oldest son of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Mada Masr's headquarters were raided, the team was held for hours, and four journalists were temporarily arrested.

Then in 2020, Attalah was arrested outside Cairo's Tora prison before she could interview the mother of prominent prisoner Alaa Abdel-Fattah.

Prominent Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah stands in a cage
Prominent Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah at court in 2015Image: AP/picture alliance

Given these hurdles, Kaldas said that Mada Masr's perseverence has been exceptional, citing how the editors have "successfully managed to refuse to succumb to that and have been very courageous in what they're prepared to report and to face the risks that come with that."

For him, a loss of Mada Masr would be "an enormous loss for both Egypt and for the international community to access information about Egypt."

But editor-in-chief Attalah is far from giving in.

"Currently, we are building up our defense strategy in case we are taken to court," she said, adding that she will continue applying for their government license.

Above all, work continues for her and her team. "We report every day on the political situation, the economic crisis and everything else that matters in Egypt. We simply hope that this last crackdown will be just another episode in our battle to survive."

This story was updated on September 15 to include the information that DW has reached out to Egyptian authorities for comment but has not yet received a reply.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa