Behind The Crackdown On Independent Egyptian News Outlet

The editor of Mada Masr, a Worldcrunch partner publication based in Cairo, explains how they wound up making news itself last month.

Design via Mada Masr
Design via Mada Masr
Lina Attalah*

After Mada Masr published a Nov. 20 piece titled "President's eldest son, Mahmoud al-Sisi, sidelined from powerful intelligence position to diplomatic mission in Russia," its staff was targeted by authorities. Here's the backstory to the piece and its aftermath.

CAIRO — In case you haven't been following, our colleague Shady Zalat was arrested from his house in the middle of the night on Saturday, our office was raided the following day, and 18 of us were detained inside incommunicado for several hours before three of us, myself included, were arrested and very briefly detained.

When I first received the story early last week, I decided to sit on it until I could get further confirmation of the details, and not just a general confirmation of the main story. Once every single detail was confirmed by at least two separate sources — and when it came to some details, as many as four — I was ready to publish. We don't get easily excited by tips or scoops. Rather, we get anxious about the rigorous process of verification that follows. We have killed far more stories than we have published.

We understood how sensitive this particular story was, but as we grew increasingly confident of its veracity, we didn't shy away from it. Just before my colleagues and I were released from custody on Sunday, we were gently reprimanded for publishing it. We were asked rhetorically: Why go there? Why report about such things?

Mada has always been a project of inquiry, of curiosity, one that particularly extends to the darker rooms of power, spaces that we barely see or know. When 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.

We are specific to the context we are born in, the here and now: What does it mean to live in Egypt, in the shadow of a profound political transformation? We want to stitch together an account of this life and how it is changing, from all of its different angles: our society, our economy, our health, our urban environment, our education. We pay attention to culture and cultural production and how it interfaces with this reality. We bounce between negotiating and resisting a new-old type of authority, in a wide spectrum of practices for survival. This calls for a constant exercise of dissecting power, and this intellectual exercise can only start from an empirical place: information first. The story we published, and got punished for, belongs to that exercise.

Journalism is a fantastic meeting of form and content.

The process that followed information verification was one of editing and re-editing, as is our habit. Is the flow okay? Can it be better? What about the choice of this word or another? What about this sentence as a whole? Where is context missing?

I love journalism because it is a fantastic meeting of form and content. This can get technical, so I will spare you. I will just say that, at Mada, we like to think of ourselves as craftswomen and men whose excitement doesn't end at finding valuable information: it only begins then. What follows is a process of rigorous questioning, not only with regards to the veracity of the information, but also to the context in which it has emerged — the politics governing that context that might be interfering with this information. It is a process of canvassing this information through the revealed and the yet-to-be-revealed possibilities of language. I like the pretense of calling ourselves artists in this moment. I deliberately throw it into some of our conversations to encourage every one of us to call out to their creative license. We are indebted to the artists and the academic friends in our lives because they allow us to smuggle some of their practices and processes into what we do.

The day I worked on the story in the office with some of my colleagues was one of the more jovial days at Mada. We were excited, at times frantically laughing, perhaps to give voice to the deep-seated fear of the imminent fate we might meet after publishing. We drank endless soda waters and ate one chocolate bar after the other. We agreed to eat koshary after we were done in order to have a meal heavy enough that could send us straight to bed and away from anxiety. You may think we are brave, or so says our façade, but a lot of times we are scared, and it is important to account for that.

Both in fear and in crisis, we always know how to laugh. A friend was once passing through our office and saw our Shady Zalat sitting on his desk, working while dancing. She asked me: What is he doing? I said: Editing. This is how he does it. Shady was taken away from his wife and daughter, from us, for one and a half days, which for him seemed to be the beginning of a nightmare that wouldn't end. Shady didn't join Mada in 2014 to be handcuffed and blindfolded in 2019. He joined Mada to make that which we think, and that which we know, live beautifully in language. He joined to edit while dancing on his chair.

I saw a broken Shady last Monday in the first meeting between us after our ordeal, and it broke a part of me. But when a cat hovered around his daughter trying to eat some of her lunch, Shady got up and started running in circles around the table after the cat, joyfully, lightly, cracking us all up in laughter.

Most of the things that come to my mind from the three-hour raid of our office last Sunday are associated with laughter. In fact, I think that many of the times that we, the hostages, collectively burst into laughter, the security agents had to work hard to keep a straight face. In my mind filled with racing thoughts, I thought to myself that maybe the only triumph of the day is that we snapped the security agents out of their orderliness, or perhaps that we made them suffer a little bit because they had to fight to suppress their own laughter.

Shady Zalat — Photo: Mada Masr

As I saw our space being occupied by a masterful choreography of over 10 agents, all of them big and tall and male, the nerd in me also wanted to encourage those who would write the story of Mada's demise to be creative about it. Remember, journalism is a formidable meeting of form and content. In what language do we mourn a newspaper? How do we send an institution to bed? In reality, I think I'd rather be a prisoner than a writer or an editor of this story. But the deeper reality, is that I neither wish to be a prisoner, nor write or edit this story.

The u-turn of the police truck was like a miracle.

I think of our coming back from imminent detention and an endless lawsuit that would deposit our bodies into a justice system, whose every procedure is designed to punish us, as a miracle. The literal u-turn of the police truck carrying three of us after the raid, as it was on its way to an interrogation and a detention facility that scares us so much, was like a miracle. We are moved by the support we received from everyone — friends, families, but also our readers, our community here and abroad. We were told that someone high up, whose name we don't know, intervened at the last minute to suspend our imminent detention.

We don't know exactly what made this person intervene. We know that pressure might have played a role, or a moment of wisdom might have snuck into the timelines of the decision makers, but we also know that no one has been coming back from detention these days. Two days after our release, journalists Solafa Magdy, her husband Hossam al-Sayyad, and Mohamed Salah were arrested at a cafe in Dokki. They now face charges of joining a terrorist organization and publishing false news. Weeks before our ordeal, hundreds were detained for being activists, journalists, or opposition politicians using legal channels like Parliament to practice politics. Most of them are in continually renewed remand detention and face a triplet of standard charges. We might have been among them, and we might still be.

For now, we are grateful for everyone who did anything to help with our case. Our special gratitude goes to those who sang for us silently in their hearts and for those who found solace in calling out for divine saints they know little about. We think our release belongs to the transcendental order of miracles.

In the police truck, my colleagues Rana Mamdouh, Mohamed Hamama and myself were handcuffed to each other. We used the tight physical connection to press on each other's hands, a gesture of it will be fine, we will be okay. And as our practical minds started doing calculations of what needs to be done (who do we tell where they have taken us, what can I do with the Christmas plans I promised my brother, that notoriously long draft report of our year's work that has not been saved on my abducted computer, etc…), both Rana and Mohamed kept muttering to me: No place for guilt. We are here by choice. No place for guilt.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the formidable team of Mada Masr. When Shady was arrested and we were still free, we were working around the clock to do everything possible to get him released. I was conscious of burnout (not knowing what would ensue in the coming days), so I told some of my colleagues to get some rest. In a message, I wrote to them about how moved I was by their dedication and their tireless engagement in this difficult time. One of them, Yasmin el-Rifae, responded briefly, sharply and poetically.

"Prisoners of love," she said.

I leave you to more publishing, for as long as we can, with a gang of prisoners of love — who by now know best how to laugh in times of crisis.

*Lina Attalah is editor-in-chief of Mada Masr

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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