NEW DELHI: In yet another episode of the crackdown of freedom of expression and press in Egypt, the Cairo-based office of Mada Masr was raided on November 24, 2019. Mada Masr is often called the ‘last bastion of the free press in Egypt’

The Editor-in-Chief Lina Attallah was arrested along with other staff members including Mohamed Hamama (Managing Editor) and Rana Mahmoud (Reporter). After several hours of questioning at Dokki Police Station, they were released by 6 pm.

Mobile phones and laptops of 16 staff members as well as freelancers present in the office were confiscated, Mada Masr said in a statement.

Eric de Lavarene, the Egyptian Correspondent of France24, who was present in the office to film an interview with Lina Attalah, was prevented from leaving the office’s premises. The French Embassy in Cairo was alerted of his unprecedented detainment.

Hassan al-Azhari, the lawyer of Mada Masr was denied any information regarding the detainment.

Earlier this week, Shady Zalat, 37, a reporter at Mada Masr was arrested from his house by security officials without an arrest warrant. He was later set free on the outskirts of Cairo on Sunday evening. He had been working for the news organisation since 2014.

On November 20, 2019, Mada Masr published an article about Mahmoud al-Sisi, the eldest son of the Egyptian President. The news report revealed how the President’s son, who holds a powerful position at General Intelligence Service (GIS), was being reassigned to Egypt’s diplomatic headquarters in Moscow in 2020 after he failed to comply with responsibilities and protocol. Reports say that President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is unsatisfied by his son’s inability to control the media in the country.

Since coming to power in a military ‘coup’ in 2013, Egyptian President al-Sisi has orchestrated several crackdowns over press freedom in the country, leading to the arrest of hundreds of academics, activists and journalists.

Mada Masr, established in 2013, is known for its political and journalistic integrity, within the context of the current media clampdown in the country. In 2013, its website was blocked by the government for spreading ‘fake news’ and accused of ‘spreading terrorism.’ Currently, its website is accessible through mirror sites and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Currently, 80% of the funding of Mada Masr comes from international NGOs like Germany-based Rosa Luxembourg Foundation and Denmark-based International Media Support. 20% of the revenue comes from subscription-fees, events, and sale of news packages as well as illustrations. To maintain its editorial integrity and independence, Mada Masr had also launched a membership model.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms has noted that around 4,427 journalists have been arrested since September when small street-protests have erupted against Sisi.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog, stated that Egypt witnessed more arrests of journalists, even higher than China and Turkey.

“It was difficult to work for Mada Masr for a very long time due to high levels of surveillance and fear. It was a very difficult decision to eventually leave and start again from scratch but I feel safer now. But looking at the recent arrests, I fear that I can be easily detained due to my work history,” said an ex-employee of Mada Masr.

Meanwhile, regular intervention by the security officials through arrests, raids, and even assault has become everyday reality.

“There are different kinds of security forces in Egypt. The deep-state is strongly intertwined with the military set-up. Often, they have internal conflict within themselves but it’s hardly exposed. Which security force is active in the ever-changing hierarchy is difficult to ascertain. We have to think twice before doing anything. Anyone can be arrested, anywhere. People have gone missing from the streets without any evidence,” said a human-rights activist from Cairo.

Meanwhile, Twitter exploded with solidarity messages for Mada Masr after the arrests.

“Egypt does not have democracy, real parliamentary oversight, or judicial checks on executive power. But at least until now Egypt has had exactly one independent news organization, @madamasr, trying to uncover the facts and hold authorities accountable,” tweeted David Kirkpatrick, International Correspondent at New York Times.

“Mada has shown nothing but courage in reporting the news against all odds and in the face of brutal repression,” tweeted the official account of Committee to Protect Journalists.

Amnesty International has described the raid as ‘dangerous escalation.’