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Egypt’s security forces raid online newspaper’s office in Cairo

Egyptian security officials have raided the offices of the country’s last major independent news outlet, which has been described as the last bastion of press freedom in Egypt.

“Plainclothes security forces have raided Mada Masr’s office in Cairo,” the website tweete. “Staff are currently being held inside, and their phones have been switched off.”

Security forces left three and a half hours later after detaining at least three staff members including the editor-in-chief, Lina Attalah.

One American and one British staff member were taken to get their passports, amid concerns they may be deported. All were later released.

The raid on Mada Masr’s offices followed the arrest of one of their editors at his home a day earlier. Shady Zalat, an employee since 2014, was released from detention on a road on the outskirts of Cairo an hour after the raid ended.

Rabab El-Mahdi, a politics professor in Cairo, said: “Lina Attalah knew yesterday that Shady’s arrest was a litmus test to see if [the authorities] could get away with this.” Mahdi had joined others gathered outside Mada Masr’s offices while police held the staff inside and prevented the publication’s lawyers from entering.

Mada Masr is the lone surviving outlet of a prolonged crackdown on independent and critical media in Egypt, and has won multiple awards. It continued to publish critical and even investigative journalism in an environment where media independent of the state have been progressively extinguished. At one point it was forced to distribute articles via Facebook after its website was blocked in Egypt two years ago.

“If you don’t want propaganda, Mada is the only place,” said Mahdi. “As an Egyptian citizen, this is the last kind of this service we have in this country.”

Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has overseen a sweeping and punitive clampdown on free expression, detaining journalists and putting them on trial as the country’s military and security forces tightened their grip on the country’s media.

At least 25 journalists were detained in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reporters Without Borders refers to the country as “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists”, ranking it 163rd out of 180 countries worldwide in terms of press freedom.

Timeline

After Tahrir Square

The country has multiple laws criminalising “fake news,” and its parliament is debating a law that would imprison those convicted of “spreading rumours”.

Mada Masr’s importance only grew as the media environment around it deteriorated. News outlets forced reliance on pre-written text sent to them by government officials has become so widespread in Egypt that it became the subject of a grim viral moment earlier this year when a news anchor read out the words “sent from a Samsung device” at the end of an item on the death of the country’s former president, Mohamed Morsi.

A spate of anti-government protests in September triggered a fresh crackdown in Egypt. At least 4,427 people were arrested, according to the Cairo-based organisation the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, while Egypt’s public prosecutor said 1,000 were arrested. The wave of arrests included the journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, who was tortured in detention and accused of charges including spreading false news and abuse of social media.

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