Press freedom in EgyptRenewed crackdown threatens last independent news site
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," said Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Mada Masr. "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," said Attalah. 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 subject to criticism in this capacity," the award-winning journalist said.
— Amnesty MENA (@AmnestyMENA) September 8, 2022
However, another worrying accusation came up during the interrogation: that Attalah was running Madr Masa without a licence. "I've been submitting requests for licencing since 2018, but have been constantly ignored by the relevant authorities," she said. And without such a licence, the future of Mada Masr is in limbo.
Since the introduction of the "NGO Law" last year, civil rights organisations and non-governmental organisations are obliged to register with the government and allow insight into 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". Organisations 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 licence 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," explained the organisation's Middle East spokesperson Pauline Ades-Mevel.
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," said Timothy E. Kaldas, a Policy Fellow at the Washington-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. 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".
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 Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, 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.
Given these hurdles, Kaldas said that Mada Masr's perseverance 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 defence strategy in case we are taken to court," she said, adding that she will continue applying for their government licence.
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."
© Deutsche Welle 2022
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