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Police Raid Egypt’s Last Independent News Outlet Mada Masr Amid “Increasingly Hostile” Media Climate

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Egyptian security forces raided the office of Mada Masr, the country’s last independent media outlet, and arrested three of its journalists this weekend. The raid began Sunday afternoon, when nine plainclothes security officers entered the Mada Masr office in Cairo, seizing phones and laptops and holding the staff in the building for more than three hours. They then arrested editor-in-chief Lina Attalah, managing editor Mohamed Hamama and reporter Rana Mamdouh. It came just a day after security forces arrested senior editor Shady Zalat at his home. All four journalists were released from detention Sunday night. The raid and arrests mark a sharp escalation in Egypt’s attack on press freedom under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power after the 2013 overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi. We go to Cairo, where we’re joined by Mada Masr reporter Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s also a Democracy Now! correspondent and was detained with his colleagues on Sunday.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Egypt, where security forces in plainclothes surrounded and raided the offices of the country’s last independent media outlet Sunday morning, detaining three journalists. The raid began Sunday afternoon when nine security officers entered the office of independent news outlet Mada Masr in Cairo, seizing phones and laptops and holding the staff in the building for more than three hours. They then arrested the editor-in-chief Lina Attalah, managing editor Mohamed Hamama and reporter Rana Mamdouh. It came just a day after security forces arrested senior editor Shady Zalat at his home. All four journalists were released from detention Sunday afternoon.

The raid and arrests mark a sharp escalation in Egypt’s attack on press freedom under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power after the 2013 overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi. While virtually all other independent news outlets have been silenced, Mada Masr has been described as Egypt’s last bastion of press freedom and continues to publish investigative journalism.

The raid came just days after Mada Masr published a report by Shady Zalat [sic] headlined “President’s eldest son, Mahmoud al-Sisi, sidelined from powerful intelligence position to diplomatic mission in Russia.” The article cited conversations with several government officials, including two members of Egypt’s intelligence services. According to the piece, there was a general consensus that, quote, “Mahmoud al-Sisi’s rising prominence as a decision maker, as well as the increasingly frequent mention of his name in international and regional media outlets, had significantly harmed the public image of the president and his family and constituted a threat to the stability of the administration.” The article said the president, quote, “immediately welcomed” the idea of removing his son from the post.

More than 4,000 people have been arrested since anti-government protests broke out across Egypt in September, in the biggest wave of arrests since Sisi came to power. Several journalists were detained for reporting on the uprising. Reporters Without Borders calls Egypt one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.

We now go to Cairo, where we’re joined by Mada Masr reporter Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is also a Democracy Now! correspondent. He was one of those detained for hours during the raid yesterday but released as the editor-in-chief and two others were taken off to the prosecutor’s office — they, too, eventually released.

Sharif, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what happened on Sunday?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I mean, this really all began Saturday morning, when we got news at about 3 a.m. that plainclothes police officers had stormed into Shady’s home — Shady Zalat. And just a slight correction: Shady did not write that article. We don’t put bylines on those articles. It’s by Mada Masr, and he in fact wasn’t the one who wrote it. But for some reason, they did target him. And they came into his apartment. They took him away, and we didn’t know where he was. We immediately began putting the word out and trying to get as much coverage as possible, trying to put pressure on authorities to release him.

And so, for Saturday, the next day — you know, this is a day off — we had decided to meet in the office at 1:30, and we were writing more press releases, getting the word out and working on Shady’s case. And right at that time, at around 1:30, nine plainclothes security personnel entered the office by force. They moved in very quickly and aggressively. They spread throughout the office. Immediately, the first thing they did was take away everyone’s phones and laptops. They were quite intimidating. When we asked who they were, they refused to answer, and they became even more agitated at the question.

And at the time of the raid, there was about 16 Mada staff and freelancers in the office, and they corralled us all in the newsroom. They made us initially stand against the wall. We weren’t allowed to talk. Then, one by one, they asked us to come out. And there was a pile of laptops and phones that they had confiscated, and we had to identify our phone, our laptop and hand over our national ID card. And they kind of set them in piles on a central table. They wrote down people’s details. They asked some people to unlock their phones, unlock their laptops, and they were looking through them before depositing — before putting them on that table.

And then we sat in the newsroom kind of the entire time, for about three hours. Different officers periodically would take Lina Attalah, the chief editor, and question her, as well as journalist Mohamed Hamama. He was taken a couple of times, as well. They also questioned two foreign freelancers that freelance with Mada, an American and a British citizen, and two members of a France 24 TV crew that had come to do an interview with Lina about Shady’s arrest.

And then, at about 4:30, they asked Lina, Hamama and Rana to come from the newsroom into the hallway. The officers gathered their personal belongings from the table — their phones or laptops and their backpacks. And this was really a horrible moment, because we had to stand there in the newsroom and watch as they were being taken away, not knowing what fates awaited them. And then the entire group left, except one security agent stayed for several minutes to inform us that they were being taken to the prosecutor’s office — which didn’t turn out to be true. We asked him which prosecutor’s office; he refused to say. When we asked him to identify himself or the security agency that he works for, he also refused.

And then the France 24 crew left with the French Embassy officials, and the two foreign freelancers were taken to their home so they could have — check on their passports. And they were eventually let go, as well.

So, Lina and Mohamed Hamama and Rana were taken to a nearby police station. They were handcuffed to each other. They were put in a police truck, which drove them to Sheikh Zayed, which is a neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo. Then, shortly afterwards, the vehicle just turned around and came back to the police station, which is next to the Mada Masr office. And around 6:15 p.m., they were all released. And shortly before that, just moments before that, and over a day and a half after he was kidnapped, essentially, from his home, Shady called our lawyer and said that he had been released on the Ring Road on the outskirts of Cairo.

And this was a real moment, for us, of joy, of almost disbelief, because as we were being held there for those three very long hours, you know, a lot was going through our minds. We didn’t know what was happening. Would we be taken and interrogated? Would we be imprisoned? If not all of us, then some of us? Then whom? It really felt like the end of Mada Masr. And at one point, Lina, the chief editor and the co-founder, she looked around at all of us standing in the office, in the newsroom, in this office that’s occupied by men with guns, and she said out loud, ”Mada Masr, 2013 to 2019.” And her eyes welled up. So we really thought it was over.

But what we didn’t realize was that, standing there, that outside the door, there was a group of friends, lawyers, civil society groups and the representatives of a couple of embassies that were there. They had heard the news. They came. They refused to leave when security agents told them to. And we didn’t realize that statements and articles in major newspapers were being published, that calls were being made. And really, this solidarity worked. And I think it’s this pressure is what finally got everyone released, because this doesn’t happen in Egypt these days. If you get taken in, if you’re arrested, you rarely come out anytime soon. So it was, I think, a moment of victory and a moment of celebration.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sharif, did they take your phone and computer, make you unlock it?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: They took — they confiscated it, but I wasn’t one of the people who was asked to unlock the phone and laptop, no.

AMY GOODMAN: And when they asked people to do that, did they start to go through their phones and laptops?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes. We couldn’t tell what they’re going through, because we’re all in the room. But one person came out, had to put their thumb, and it unlocked it, and they were scrolling through something on the phone. We don’t know what. Messages. I mean, typically what’s been happening, at least in — September 20th, there was kind of small but significant protests against Sisi, calling for his ouster, and that was followed by really a massive crackdown, an unprecedented crackdown, the widest arrest sweeps since Sisi came to office, with 4,000 people being arrested, including activists, lawyers, university professors, political figures. I think at least eight journalists, additional journalists, have been arrested since then.

And there was also this attempt to strong-arm their way into any private conversation. So, if you’re walking down the street, you look a certain way maybe, you’re a young man or woman, they just come up to you, take your phone, make you unlock it, and go through your Facebook, go through your WhatsApp messages. And there’s really no kind of denying and refusing them. I mean, you can try, and some people have, but most people will unlock their phones. And so they’re going through these messages to see if there’s any political content, and doing that to average citizens. That was right after the September 20th protest. It’s kind of calmed down now.

When they’re going through phones at someone at _Mada_’s office, I’m not sure what they’re looking for. I’m sure they realize that we’re journalists, and there must be political content on the phones, but it’s hard to know.

AMY GOODMAN: Reporters Without Borders calls Egypt one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. And you have — what? — 4,000 people arrested since the anti-government protests broke out across Egypt in September. Can you talk about the overall climate to operate? And also, what does the words ”Mada Masr” mean in Arabic?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The climate is increasingly hostile. The last couple of months, it’s hard to describe what it’s been like working here, since September 20th. It takes a toll. I mean, you’re publishing, and you don’t know what will come. You go to the office, you don’t know if you’re going to be raided. You’re worried that your colleagues who are more visible will be targeted for arrest. You go home not knowing if you’re going to wake up there in the morning. This is the kind of atmosphere that you’re working in.

And when they arrested Shady from his home in the early morning of Saturday, it hit very hard. And then the next day they raided the office. And Lina said, you know, journalists have no protection other than the integrity of their work and the value that others place in it. And we saw that value on huge display after Shady’s arrest, after the raid on our office, with all these people coming out, physically outside of the building and also making calls around the world. And that’s what happened with Shady, Lina and Hamama. They got out. And it’s really very rare here that this happens.

I also have to thank you personally, Amy, and Jeremy Scahill, my family, for all the work you did also in getting the word out while we were detained in the office. It was this kind of stuff that was invaluable for us. But, you know, we are the lucky ones. There are — I don’t know the exact figure, but I think close to 30 now journalists who are in prison. Egypt is one of the top jailers of journalists in the world.

They have rearrested Alaa Abd El-Fattah, after he spent five years in prison and was going to — and then had another five years of what they call probation, where he had to submit himself to a police station at 6 p.m. every day and would only get out at 6 a.m. And then, one of those days they just took him from the police station. He’s now in maximum-security two wing of Tora Prison, where he never sees the sun. He’s never outside. He’s not allowed any reading materials. So they’ve really escalated on this. The canteen is closed, so he eats this kind of horrible food.

And he’s just one of many. They arrested his lawyer when his lawyer was coming to the prosecutor’s office to do his lawyerly work. They’ve arrested university professors that have before been untouched and political figures that were never before arrested. There are people dying in prison. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a former presidential candidate, has had a couple of heart attacks in prison. The conditions are very bad. There’s a lot of medical negligence. The former president did die in prison, Mohamed Morsi. He died in court, but as a result of his imprisonment and what human rights groups have documented as medical negligence.

So, it is a very hostile environment to work in. But again, even though this was a dark moment, I think, for us and for Mada and for independent journalism in Egypt, really the response and the solidarity was incredible and, I really believe, is the only reason we got out, that this was too damaging to authorities, it was too damaging to their reputation, it was too much of a political cost for them, and they just released us. And I think we were waiting in those hours — they were trying to make a decision, and they decided to let us go.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of President Trump praising the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the two leaders met during the U.N. General Assembly here in New York.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’s an honor to be with my friend, the president of Egypt. And he is a real leader. He has done some things that are absolutely amazing in a short period of time. When he took over, not so long ago, it was in turmoil. And it’s not in turmoil now. So, I just want to say we have a long-term, great relationship. It’s better than ever before. We’re doing a lot of trading.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Trump praising the Egyptian president in September at the U.N. General Assembly. He also recently referred to Egyptian President Sisi as “my favorite dictator.” Sharif Abdel Kouddous, your response?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, I mean, those comments came as this massive crackdown was happening. It really — I think it was the day after September 20th, or may have been on September 20th. So, as I’ve said before, you know, the U.S. policy has not actually changed that much. It’s not a Trump problem; it’s a U.S.-Egypt relationship problem that has supported various different governments over decades. And Republican and Democratic administrations have done so.

But the rhetoric does matter in this case also. When it’s happening, and he says he’s doing a great job, that really does give a green light for this. And we’ve seen — you know, but I think it’s no secret; there’s a lot of documentation of what’s happening in Egypt. And both the United States and Europe have, I think, decided that this is a political cost — this is not a political cost for them, they don’t care, and that they’re more focused on issues of migration and making sure that Egypt is not letting people cross the Mediterranean to Europe. And there’s been a huge uptick in weapons sales to Egypt from countries like Germany, France, Russia. So, this is a relationship that we have. So, again, I mean, it’s a continuation of things, but the rhetoric, really, I think, gave the president and Egyptian authorities a green light to do what they wanted. and what they wanted was to arrest thousands of people.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, what does “Mada Masr” mean?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it’s a play on different words, but it can mean kind of the “jewel of Egypt,” but that’s not really what it — I think, what it was meant to mean. But it can also mean kind of “content of Egypt.” It’s a little hard to explain in English, to be honest. But it is really the last place that is doing this kind of professional, critical, adversarial journalism. And I’ve only been working there for a year or so, but it’s been around since 2013, and it has done critical work. And we will continue to do work there, because I think we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sharif, we tip our hats to you and to your colleagues’ bravery. We thank you so much for continuing to do that work. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, reporter with Mada Masr, independent media outlet in Cairo. Please be safe.

When we come back, Pope Francis visits Hiroshima and Nagasaki, calls the possession of nuclear weapons immoral. Stay with us.

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