Crackdown on journalists in egypt: team detained in own office

The small news portal "Mada Masr" is still doing independent journalism in Egypt. But now the authorities are taking action against the editorial team.

Where is he? Journalist Shady Zalat Photo: ap

The Egyptian government has sounded the attack on the country’s last independent media outlet. On Sunday afternoon, a police raid began at the editorial offices of the news portal Mada Masr in Cairo. The editors are being held there, and the phones have been switched off. A lawyer for the editorial staff is denied access.

The raid is the culmination for now of a standoff between security forces and Mada Masr. Shady Zalat, a well-known editor of the portal, had already been arrested on Saturday.

According to Mada Masr, the 37-year-old was picked up at dawn by plainclothes security officers at his home. They did not present an arrest warrant and gave no explanation as to why the journalist was being arrested. They would have taken his laptop and his wife’s laptop and returned later looking for Zalat’s cell phone.

"He did nothing but use words to report news," a statement from Mada Masr said. It said security officials told Zalat’s wife that her husband would be taken to Giza security headquarters in Cairo.

However, when Hassan al-Azhari, Mada Masr’s lawyer, inquired there, he was told the journalist was not there. "We assume that Zalat has disappeared," the lawyer explained. His arrest is illegal because he has not yet been handed over to any investigative authorities, he adds.

Another editor turned away at the airport

According to editor-in-chief Lina Attalah, another of Mada Masr’s editors, U.S. citizen Daniel O’Connell, had already been prevented from entering the country at Cairo airport a few weeks ago and deported.

Mada Masr is considered the last remaining outlet for independent journalism in Egypt, where most media outlets have been brought into line. The news portal, which reports in Arabic and English, is known for investigative journalism and critical analysis. For more than a year, the portal’s website was blocked in Egypt, forcing the editorial team to turn to social media.

So far, it is unclear what triggered Zalat’s arrest. On Wednesday, Mada Masr had reported that Mahmud al-Sisi, one of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s sons, was moving from his post in Egypt’s intelligence service to the embassy in Moscow.

In the article, Mada Masr quotes unnamed sources who say that Mahmud al-Sisi did not have a grip on the media during a short-lived wave of protests in September. This, they say, damaged his father’s image.

There were no reports on the Zalat case in the major Egyptian media over the weekend. Presidential father-son relationships are a sensitive issue in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak, who was propped up in 2011, had once tried to have his son Gamal named as his successor, which was one of the triggers for the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.

"We are all in danger"

In response to Zalat’s detention, Amnesty International called for ensuring that he was not tortured and that he had access to a lawyer and his family. Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, described the arrest as the beginning of an "assault on the country’s last remaining independent publication."

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It’s a view echoed by Editor-in-Chief Attalah: "We think the whole thing is a message from the authorities that our hour has now come, too," she told The Washington Post. In addition to concern for colleagues, the whole thing is an existential threat to Mada Masr, the news portal’s statement, updated Sunday, said.

This is especially true since Zalat’s arrest follows the largest wave of arrests since al-Sisi officially came to power in 2014. More than 4,000 people have been arrested since anti-government protests broke out on September 20," the portal writes, citing human rights organizations. Activists, professors, lawyers, journalists and well-known opposition figures are among those arrested, it adds.

"We are all in danger and if we don’t stand up, we will all become prisoners," chief editor Attalah is quoted as saying in the news portal’s statement. "As Shady’s colleagues, our only option is to fight for his safety and for our ability to continue doing our jobs."