Lina Attalah: ‘In Egypt, independent journalism is under threat’

By Neïla Latrous

Posted on Wednesday, 17 June 2020 15:44
lina attalah
Lina Attalah, Egyptian journalist and chief editor at Mada Masr (TANIA/CONTRASTO-REA)

The coronavirus pandemic has given the government of Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi leeway to further expand state control.

Arrests and searches of media outlets are increasing in Egypt. Lina Attalah, co-founder of Mada Masr, who herself was interviewed in Cairo on 17 May, talks about the increasingly difficult daily life of this investigative website and of her profession.

In the midst of the pandemic, NGOs are concerned that the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to give the strongman in Cairo more powers than he already has.

“He is using the pandemic to expand, not reform, the abusive emergency law in Egypt,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.

Indeed, the Egyptian Parliament has approved several amendments to the State of Emergency Law, which has been in force since 2017. These would allow the President to order the closure of schools, the suspension of public services, the banning of public and private gatherings and the quarantine of travellers entering the country.

READ MORE Egypt VS Coronavirus: Military’s excuse to extend economic control?

They would also authorize the military prosecutor to assist the Public Prosecutor’s Office in investigating crimes reported by the armed forces, responsible for law enforcement under a state of emergency.

For the media and freedom of information, the situation is increasingly worrying. Over the past two years, waves of arrests and searches have become increasingly frequent, to the extent that Reporters Without Borders wrote that “Egypt has become one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.”

Lina Attalah, editor of the independent online paper Mada Masr, which is often critical of the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was arrested outside the infamous Tora prison in Cairo on 17 May and later released on bail.

The journalist had come to talk to human rights activist Laila Soueif, a professor at Cairo University and mother of activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah – who has been imprisoned since September 2019. Below is an interview with Jeune Afrique and Lina Attalah, an ardent defender of the freedom of expression.

Jeune Afrique: Are there issues that should not be discussed in Egypt to ensure the survival of a media outlet?

Lina Attalah: We don’t ask ourselves that question. We do not believe that certain important issues should not be addressed to ensure our survival. In that case, our very survival would be meaningless.

There are about 1,000 blocked media sites in Egypt today, it has become a normal thing.

We are very attached to the continuity and sustainability of our work. At Mada Masr, we strive to approach topics intelligently, especially with regard to titles and the presentation of sensitive subjects.

But we don’t question whether or not we’re going to publish a story if we’re sure it’s solid. If one day I give up publishing a story out of fear, I hope it will be my last as a journalist, and it will also be Mada’s last day.

How would you define Mada Masr’s editorial line today?

Our daily life has been the same since our creation in 2013. We publish stories that we believe are of general interest. Our goal is not to counter the state, but to be a successful media that serves its readers. It is not a production about the state or against it, but rather to produce content that leads people to think outside the dominant framework, to see other approaches .

It is an ambitious project that translates into daily reporting and production work, carried out by a group of journalists of different nationalities and backgrounds.

In February, the legislature gave its initial approval to amend a 2015 anti-terrorism law to include the press and media in the list of entities considered as terrorists. How would this law affect your daily life?

The amendments still have to be sent to the Council of State and then to the Presidency for ratification. If that were the case, it would make it even easier to label organisations as terrorist entities and would strengthen the repression against all those who oppose the state, whether they are journalists, activists, or people who are critical of the state.

READ MORE Egypt’s protests reveal the deep cracks in al-Sisi’s strongman façade

This would make the situation even more difficult for us, since the penalties for those who dare to speak out are extremely violent.

Creating or directing a “terrorist” entity can result in the death penalty or life imprisonment. This would make our independent journalism project almost impossible to carry out.

What political context has favoured the advancement of such a law?

We have to go back to the change of government in the summer of 2013. President [Mohamed] Morsi was replaced by a military government, which became official in 2014 when al-Sisi was elected president. The opposition and independent journalists saw the emergence of a kind of authoritarianism that we had never known, even under the Mubarak era.

It is characterized by an attempt to have absolute control over everything that revolves around public opinion. This is not only repression, but also a state campaign to monitor, intimidate and imprison all those who speak freely. I can understand that there are laws to regulate the media, but this is about censorship.

How do you manage to publish your articles when your site has been blocked since 2017?

There are about 1,000 blocked media sites in Egypt today, it has become a normal thing. To get out of this impasse, we use what we call alternative sites, mirror sites, so that our readers can continue to read our productions. It’s not ideal, of course, but it allows us to make our production accessible.

These alternative sites may also be blocked by the government. In this case, we renew the domain name… until the state blocks it. So, then we renew it again…

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