Mada Masr journalists to stand trial

Amnesty International has organised a number of protests in Europe, calling for the ever-increasing number of political prisoners in Egypt to be freed.
Amnesty International has organised a number of protests in Europe, calling for the ever-increasing number of political prisoners in Egypt to be freed.

Reporters from one of Egypt's last remaining independent media outlets are preparing for what activists criticise is a politically motivated trial. The international community should be doing more to help, they say. By Cathrin Schaer

By Cathrin Schaer

Three journalists from one of Egypt's last remaining independent media sources are to stand trial on 7 March 2023. Mada Masr is one of Egypt's – if not, of the Middle East's – most prominent independent outlets, known for its investigative reporting. Rights groups see the trial as yet another attempt by the Egyptian government to silence its critics.

"We don't really know what to expect," said Mada Masr editor-in-chief Lina Attalah. The team members involved are "calm and composed, but obviously concerned," she said. "As journalists, we don't like to be the story ourselves. And even before there's any kind of verdict, no matter how severe, this is taking us away from our work in the newsroom," she added, pointing out that the case was being heard in a courtroom three hours away from Cairo, where Mada Masr is based. "We just want to be able to do our work." 

The case began last September, after Mada Masr published a story about corruption in a local political party, Nation's Future. The party supports Egypt's current leader, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a retired military officer who was involved in a 2013 military coup that saw the country's democratically elected officials removed from power. He became president in 2014.

Published in August, the Mada Masr story alleged that members of the Nation's Future Party were implicated in "gross financial misconduct" in a state corruption case. But after party members and party followers submitted hundreds of complaints, Egyptian prosecutors brought four Mada Masr journalists in for questioning.

Three Mada Masr journalists are to face trial in early March on charges of “offense against MPs” from the state-aligned Nation’s Future Party and of “misusing communications channels.” [1/5]

— Mada Masr مدى مصر (@MadaMasr) February 28, 2023


Attalah and three of the article's authors – Rana Mamdouh, Sara Seif Eddin and Beesan Kassab – were charged with slander and the defamation of members of the Nation's Future Party. After interrogation, the all-female group was released on bail.

Shortly afterwards, Attalah was also charged with starting a website without a licence. This came despite the fact that, as Attalah has pointed out, the outlet had unsuccessfully been trying to obtain a licence since 2018, but has never had a response from the relevant authorities. Egyptian law states that regulatory agencies must contact an applicant if their licence is rejected.

'Extremely worried' about trial

"Sisi's government has spared no efforts to silence [Mada Masr]," confirmed Jonathan Dagher, head of the Middle East desk at the media rights organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF). "The journalists of Mada Masr should never have been interrogated in the first place, they should never have been arrested, and they should definitely not be facing charges for doing their work of informing the public."

Dagher added that RSF was extremely worried about the outcome of the trial next week. If found guilty, the journalists could be sentenced to up to two years in jail and forced to pay fines of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds (€9,192). "It's also important to note that trials against journalists in Egypt don't usually meet [international] standards of justice," Dagher said. "This is why 25 journalists are currently behind bars in Egypt. Though many of them are in pre-trial detention, several have been sentenced in politicised trials, and then found guilty of ludicrous charges."

Egypt is currently ranked 168 of the 180 countries in RSF's annual press freedom index. After slipping down the list slowly for the past decade – in 2013, it sat at 158 – the country now has what is almost its worst-ever ranking. "Virtually all media are under direct control of the state, of the secret services or of a handful of millionaire businessmen with influence in ruling circles," RSF's 2022 case file on Egypt states. "Independent media are censored and targeted by prosecutors. … Outlets who refuse to submit to censorship are blocked, as in the case of independent news site Mada Masr, inaccessible in Egypt since 2017."

Mada Masr has continued to publish stories through other channels and via social media though, and can also be accessed using virtual private network software.


Just one of many such cases

This trial is just the latest of many forms of judicial harassment, said Hossam Baghat, executive director of the human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR. The activist and journalist has been prosecuted under some of the same restrictive laws that will be applied during the Mada Masr court case. Since 2016, he has been banned from leaving the country. The EIPR is currently facing three criminal prosecutions, he said. 

Baghat believes conditions for human rights are worsening in Egypt. The aftermath of events like the United Nations' climate conference, COP27, that was held in Egypt last November, sends "a terrible message to the government," Baghat argued.

During the climate conference, which was held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, there were protests permitted and speeches by visiting European diplomats calling for better human rights and more press freedom in Egypt. During the conference, one of the country's best-known activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who also holds a British passport, went on hunger strike. His family, who came to the conference to protest, had high hopes that with all the international pressure and world headlines, he might be released. He wasn't.

"More could have been done by governments to pressure the Egyptian government into releasing him," said Dagher from Reporters without Borders. "We are disappointed that the international community did not go all the way to secure his liberation."

According to human rights activist Baghat, the message this sort of situation sends to the Egyptian government "is that if they dig in and refuse to compromise, they won't just get away with it, they may actually be rewarded with more trade deals and more business as usual".

"The situation has actually deteriorated after COP27. More people are being arrested, more websites are being blocked and more judicial harassment is happening," he said.

A German naval frigate at sea (image: Joerg Waterstraat/picture-alliance)
In 2021, Germany authorised €9 billion worth of arms exports to Egypt, the highest amount ever approved in one year: "There is a lot more the German government could do in order to challenge the human rights violations in Egypt," Baghat said. And giving awards to people like soon-to-be-tried editor Attalah, "gives Germany even more responsibility to speak out against these violations"

Europe has a special responsibility, activists say

German government officials attending COP27 spoke out about Egypt's dire human rights record and in December last year, the German foreign office named Mada Masr editor Attalah one of the laureates of the 2022 Franco-German Prize for Human Rights. The Egyptian government has accused Germany of meddling and last month, Luise Amtsberg, the German government's commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid, was told she would not be given a visa for a planned visit to Egypt. 

"And Germany is just taking all this," Baghat complained. Germany is Egypt's second-biggest trading partner in Europe, with trade volumes worth around €5 billion and growing, and there are a wide variety of links between the two countries, including in loans and large, albeit controversial, German arms sales. "There is a lot more the German government could do in order to challenge the human rights violations in Egypt," Baghat said. And giving awards to people like soon-to-be-tried editor Attalah, "gives Germany even more responsibility to speak out against these violations," he concluded.

When the court case starts, Attalah is hoping for more support, both locally and internationally. "I just wish that anybody who has the privilege to do so, and some leverage, will speak up against a trial that endangers freedom of the press," she said.

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2023