Egyptian security forces have arrested the founder of the country’s last independent media outlet in a growing crackdown on freedom of expression linked to COVID-19.
Lina Attalah, the editor-in-chief of the Web site Mada Masr, was arrested outside Tora prison in the south of Cairo while interviewing the mother of a jailed activist attempting to bring medication and hand sanitizer to her son.
The activist, Abd El Fattah, has been on hunger strike since the middle of last month in protest of deteriorating prison conditions, including the risk of the spread of the coronavirus inside Tora prison as well as the suspension of prison visits and trial hearings due to the pandemic.
Attalah was taken to a police station and held for undisclosed charges, before she was taken to a prosecutor’s office for questioning.
Mada Masr reported that Attalah’s mobile phone was seized and the media outlet’s lawyer was prevented from seeing Attalah while in detention.
The journalist was recognized by Time magazine as a “New Generation Leader,” in 2017, when she was branded the “muckraker of the Arab world.”
Mada Masr is internationally recognized as the last bastion of press freedom in Egypt, a lone award-winning independent outlet in a repressive media environment where the majority of newspapers are state-controlled.
The staff at Mada Masr, including Attalah, endured a raid by plainclothes security officials on their offices in November last year when she was detained and later released following international pressure.
The Web site of Mada Masr has been blocked since May 2017, one of at least 500 sites blocked inside Egypt.
Attalah’s arrest is part of a pattern of repression connected to COVID-19. Egyptian security forces detained journalist Hassan Mahgoub at his home earlier this month, after he reported a series of stories about the virus.
Editor Atef Hasballah last month was bundled into the back of a police van and accused of joining a terrorist group after questioning the government’s official statistics about COVID-19 on Facebook.
Egypt is considered one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, ranked 166 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.
Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service and the journalists’ syndicate did not respond when contacted for comment.
“Lina’s arrest is yet another example of Egypt’s persistent assault on journalists,” said Timothy E Kaldas of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and a longtime friend of Attalah.
“It’s worrisome that the latest round of crackdowns coincides with the COVID pandemic,” he said. “Egyptian authorities may presume this leaves foreign capitals distracted and unprepared to emphasize concerns about political freedoms. A free press that the public can trust for information is all the more vital during a health crisis.”
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