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Egypt arrests journalist during interview in latest attack on independent media

Lina Attalah, editor in chief of Mada Masr, participates in a panel discussion in Cairo in 2017. (Roger Anis/AP)
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CAIRO — Egyptian security forces arrested a prominent Egyptian journalist on Sunday as she interviewed the mother of a political prisoner outside Cairo's Tora Prison, the latest attack on press freedom by the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a key U.S. ally.

Lina Attalah, the editor in chief of one of the country’s few remaining independent media outlets, was taken into custody Sunday afternoon as she tried to speak with Laila Soueif. Soueif was bringing cleaning supplies to her imprisoned son, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is on a hunger strike.

On Sunday evening, after prosecutors questioned her, Attalah was ordered released on about $125 bail. Late Sunday, she was released from the police station, said her newspaper, Mada Masr.

By then, news of her arrest had gone viral on social media, triggering widespread calls for her release.

Attalah “was arrested for nothing more than doing journalism,” her newspaper said in a tweet. Mada Masr said that “we hold authorities responsible for her well-being and call for her immediate and unconditional release.”

The government did not respond to a request for comment on Attalah’s arrest.

In November, Egyptian security agents arrested a Mada Masr editor at his home without a warrant and confiscated his laptop, work documents and cellphone. Security agents stormed Mada Masr’s downtown Cairo office the next day and briefly arrested Attalah and two journalists.

Security forces raid offices of one of Egypt’s last independent media organizations

Journalists, bloggers and social media influencers are frequent targets of the Sissi regime, which critics say is the most repressive in the nation’s modern history. Egypt was ranked among the world’s top jailers of journalists last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The Egyptian govt’s ongoing campaign to intimidate and arrest journalists while doing their job seeks to silence the press & encourage self-censorship,” Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, tweeted Sunday.

The campaign denies “the Egyptian public access to quality reliable journalism at a time when an informed public is especially vital,” Kaldas said.

Hundreds of websites, including Mada Masr, viewed as too outspoken or critical of the regime have been blocked. While most Egyptian media are either state-run or owned by pro-government entities, Mada Masr is one of the few remaining reputable independent voices — investigating official corruption, human rights abuses or the internal workings of the government at considerable risk.

Several journalists and social media influencers have been arrested recently for what human rights activists say are politically motivated reasons. They have been charged with spreading “false news,” misusing social media or helping a terrorist organization.

Egypt detains journalist from one of the last independent news outlets

Mawada Eladhm, who has millions of followers on the popular video app TikTok and Instagram, was arrested last week on charges of violating Egyptian family values through her posts.

 On Sunday, Attalah was attempting to interview Soueif, a well-known human rights activist, who in recent weeks has campaigned to raise awareness of poor conditions inside Egypt’s overcrowded prisons. The United Nations and rights groups fear the coronavirus could easily spread among inmates.

Her son has been on a hunger strike for more than a month in protest of the conditions in his detention. A blogger and activist, he has been in jail since September, when small groups of anti-government protests erupted in Cairo and other cities. The government has prevented family visits, citing coronavirus restrictions, which in effect has cut off prisoners from the world, activists say.

 On Sunday, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling not only for Attalah’s release but also for Abdel Fattah’s “lawful legal rights to family visitation and medical treatment in prison.”

Abdel Fattah was arrested after he wrote a critical column in Mada Masr, the group said.

Egypt expands its crackdown to target foreigners, journalists and even children

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