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Cheat sheet: Lina Attalah

Georgia McKay

Journalist and activist Lina Attalah, recognised as a New Generation Leader by TIME magazine, who also dubbed her the ‘Muckraker of the Arab World’, is the co-founder and chief editor of Mada Masr, an independent online Egyptian newspaper internationally recognised for countering the official state-sanctioned narrative.

In 2019, the Egyptian government was ranked 163rd of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Egypt is now one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, some of whom spend years in detention without being charged or tried while others have been sentenced to long jail terms or even life imprisonment in mass trials. 

Learn more about the constraints against freedom of expression with one of the Middle East’s most powerful political players.  

Mada Masr’s humble beginnings

Mada Masr was founded just before the coup to oust former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

When Attalah founded Mada (Arabic for range, scope or span) aged 30, it was her seventh news venture. Many of her previous undertakings, including Egypt Independent, folded or were forcibly closed due to the hostility of successive governments towards independent minded journalists.

Attalah was determined to launch by 30 June, the day that a mass demonstration calling for the resignation of Morsi was planned. The military coup, set into motion three days after the website launched, lead to ruthless suppression of dissenting voices, and Mada emerged as one of the few independent news sources in the country.

Lina Atallah: The Editor In Chief Of Mada Masr | Next Generation Leaders | TIME

The fallout from Morsi’s ousting

Egypt is a young country, with almost 60% of its population under the age of 30. All the key political movements of the last decade – the Kefaya protests of 2005 which challenged Mubarak, the 2011 revolution and the 2013 Tamarrod petition campaign to unseat Morsi – were initiated by young people, but the older generation (predominately men) have reasserted control afterwards.

In the six months after Morsi was ousted, it’s estimated more than 2,500 Egyptians were killed, 17,000 wounded, and 18,000 arrested.

After the army deposed Morsi, Mada published a story describing a coordinated army assault on demonstrators. Mainstream Egyptian press presented this political violence, unprecedented in the country’s modern history, as a necessary ‘war on terror’. During key political events, government sanctioned press carried the same rhetoric. 

In the lead up to the constitutional referendum in January 2014, talk show hosts browbeat viewers to support it and accused dissenters of treason. In October, the editors-in-chief of major newspapers issued a statement pledging to support the state and to reject attempts to undermine the army, police and judiciary.

The fate of dissenting voices in Egypt

In 2013, veteran Australian correspondent Peter Greste was arrested along with two Al Jazeera English journalists for news reporting which was “damaging to national security”. He was found guilty of falsifying news and having a negative impact on overseas perceptions of the country and sentenced to seven years of incarceration before being deported to Australia in 2015 following a re-trial.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Egyptian authorities have waged a witch hunt since 2013 against journalists suspected of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, deemed a terrorist group after forming the first democratically elected government in nation’s history before being ousted. More than 500 websites have been blocked since the summer of 2017 and more are more people are being arrested because of their social network posts.

Brisbane man Hazem Hamouda was released in April 2019 after languishing in one of Egypt's most notorious prisons for more than a year without charge. He was accused of spreading false information following a Facebook post considered sympathetic to Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Human Rights Watch, since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured a second term in a largely unfree and unfair presidential election in March 2018, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents and civil society activists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists found that at least 20 journalists were in Egyptian prison in 2018.

Democracy Now! – Sharif Kouddous & Lina Attalah on Egypt's Media, Sectarianism & State Violence From Mubarak to Morsi

On August 18, 2018, President al-Sisi approved a new law regulating the internet called the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes Law (Cybercrime Law). The Egyptian parliament passed the law on July 5, granting the government broader powers to restrict freedom of expression, violate citizens’ privacy, and jail online activists for peaceful speech. In late July, parliament also passed a new law regulating the press, the Media Regulation Law, which further restricts journalistic freedoms, allows censorship without judicial orders, and levies severe monetary fines for violating the law’s articles, in addition to prison sentences for cases related to “inciting violence.”

As Attalah told the Century Foundation in a paper on ‘Innovative Arab Media and the New Outlines of Citizenship’: “Trying to work in free and critical media in Egypt in the last few years has at times been a lonely endeavor. Even at its best moments, reporting and writing for Mada Masr… can feel like fighting a flood with a bucket, or shouting into the wind.  All around there is a rising tide of authoritarianism.”

Hear from Attalah on the panels Who Gets to Speak and My Crime is Journalism at Antidote on Sunday 1 September.  

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