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Egypt's Mada Masr determined to press on despite raid

Lina Attalah, editor in chief of the news website Mada Masr, spoke to Al-Monitor about a harrowing police raid of the site's office and how she and the staff are determined to continue their work.

After police raided the offices of the Mada Masr news website last week, editor in chief Lina Attalah has expressed her determination to persevere in the pursuit of critical journalism in Egypt. “We will continue our independent coverage of what is happening in Egypt,” she told Al-Monitor. Attalah said she has been encouraged by international statements of support for her organization and the journalistic right to freedom of expression.

Mada Masr fell into the government's crosshairs after publishing an article on Nov. 20 based on information apparently provided by sources at the General Intelligence Service (GIS). According to the sources, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had planned to send his eldest son, Mahmoud al-Sisi, a senior GIS official, to serve as Egypt's military envoy in Russia after Mahmoud failed to control the recent protests driven by economic hardship and government corruption, thus damaging his father's reputation.

Authorities raided Mada Masr's offices Nov. 24 and detained Attalah and editors Mohamed Hamama and Rana Mamdouh. The day before, police had arrested Mada Masr journalist Shadi Zalat at his home without citing a reason.

“Journalism is becoming more dangerous, and hostility to journalists is increasing,” Attallah remarked to Al-Monitor. “We were shocked, and we are still shocked, about what happened, and it is not really easy to work as a journalist in this environment.”

Appearing to be undeterred by events, Attalah further remarked, “We hope that none of us back off, although it would be understandable, and it is the right of everyone to stop when they feel unsafe.”

Although Attalah's staff had been expecting raids, she said they were nonetheless terrified when nine security officers in civilian clothes entered the website’s offices at 1:30 pm. “They quickly spread out among the rooms,” Attalah noted. “They were violent in their behavior and immediately confiscated the phones and laptops of the 16 workers present. When we asked them about their identity, they refused to respond and were angry. It was scary.”

The officers pushed all the journalists into one room and ordered them to stand in front of a wall and not to talk to one another. “Some phones were searched, they took some information, and then they all returned to the newsroom,” Attalah said.

For three hours, various security officers interrogated Attalah, Hamama and American, British and French journalists, including two from France 24 who were there on assignment to conduct an interview with Attalah. At around 4:30 pm, the officers left, taking Attalah, Hamama and Mamdouh with them. The three were released a few hours later.

Mada Masr has been covering political and social issues in Egypt and the broader Middle East, in Arabic and English, since 2013. It has earned a reputation at home and abroad as the last bastion of professional, independent Egyptian journalism and has long been a thorn in the side of the government as a vocal critic on policy matters.

Attallah believes the article on Mahmoud al-Sisi triggered the raids and detentions. Without naming its sources at GIS, Mada Masr reported that Mahmoud had “failed to properly handle a number of his responsibilities” and that his “increasingly visible influence in the upper decision-making levels of government … [have had] a negative impact on his father’s image.” 

Meanwhile, the office of the public prosecutor said in a Nov. 25 statement that it had issued a search warrant for Mada Masr after being presented with a National Security Agency investigative report claiming that the banned Muslim Brotherhood had established the website to spread false news and rumors to generate public disorder.

Mada Masr was founded by a group of Egyptian journalists who primarily had worked for the English-language Egyptian Gazette. It describes itself on its website as being self-funded through journalistic activities, including journalist training and editorial services, and merchandising. The government blocked access to Mada Masr, along with a number of other media outlets, in May 2017.

Two days after the police raid, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Sisi government to respect freedom of the press. A spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry retorted that Mada Masr was operating without authorization and denied that the raid had been “against freedom of expression.” French and German officials also condemned the incident and urged Cairo to uphold freedom of expression.

In regard to such shows of support, Attalah remarked, “We were happy with the international reactions and that has helped us calm down and feel protected.”

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