A Final Punch in Egypt’s Free Speech

Written by: Harry Colvin

On Saturday, November 23rd, Egyptian forces raided the office of Mada Masr, Egypt’s last significant independent news outlet. Mada Masr’s official Twitter account posted a statement revealing that the raid began around 1:30 p.m. local time, as the security forces began confiscating laptops and phones from employees. All employees of the publication were then contained in the newsroom and asked to give personal details. Lina Attalah, an editor, and two senior journalists, Rana Mamdouh and Mohamed Hamama, were then taken away from the Cairo office for questioning. Just a day before this, Mada Masr editor Shady Zalat had been detained by the Egyptian police at his home. 

A few days before the raid Mada Masr released an article about Mahmoud al-Sisi, the president’s son, revealing that he had been reassigned from his intelligence position to join a diplomatic mission in Russia. Mada Masr reported that this decision was made due to a perception in the president’s inner circle that his son had not been able to handle his large responsibilities. Since its foundation six years ago, Mada Masr has been highly acclaimed for being one of the few hard-hitting media outlets. They did not shy away from topics that went against the government, such as the war against ISIS, human rights violations, and the role of security services in shaping politics. They have been a beacon of light for people around the world concerned with Egypt. 

According to Mada Masr’s Twitter, all four journalists were released on Sunday, November 24th. Speaking out on the incident, Attalah released an article on Mada Masr’s site titled A few things you might like to know about us. She gave background and context to what happened in the past couple of days and spoke of what journalism and Mada Masr meant to her. “We started publishing in 2013, many thought of us as a media by and for the children of the 2011 revolution. We are indeed the children (and the makers) of 2011. But we are far more ambitious than that.” 

This story doesn’t start or end with Mada Masr. For the past 6 years, Egypt has been subject to an incredibly strict crackdown on media. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2013 after overthrowing the former president. Under his control, hundreds of media outlets have been blocked by the Egyptian authorities. Egypt has jailed the largest number of journalists after China and Turkey according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Reporters Without Border’s 2019 Press Freedom Index Egypt ranked 163rd out of 180 countries.

The right to freedom of speech is something that many take for granted. Being able to comment on and criticize those in power is a crucial aspect of a healthy democracy. Every year, hundreds of journalists across the world are harassed, imprisoned, or killed. Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists are admirable in the attention they draw to the issue, but the world as a whole needs to consider the lives of journalists who have been subject to abuse simply for speaking up. If they didn’t speak up who would have? And if we don’t fight for them, what did they speak up for? 

Journalists represent the voice of the people. Without a free media, the public would have no way of keeping check on those in power. Egypt is one of many countries that limits the basic human right that is self-expression. Egypt passed the Anti-Cyber And Information Technology Crimes Law in July 2018. The government claimed the law was put in place to prohibit the ideas of terrorist organizations. However, the government has clearly abused their power. Egypt does face security threats and has been in a state of unrest for some years now, but President Sisi is exploiting these threats to control peaceful protests. 

The issue of limited media in countries like Egypt is a major issue, but it is part of a bigger issue of corrupt governments. Bringing awareness to issues like the prevention of free journalism will help fight against abusive government control. As Americans, there isn’t a great amount of help we can offer other than spreading awareness. Press freedom groups such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists do a great job of fighting for the rights of free media. I encourage the public to simply talk more about the restrictions placed on journalism throughout the world. Without free journalism in corrupt countries, it is up to us to report on the issues in those countries and fight for the rights of all humans.