Visiting editor sounds hopeful note on media in Egypt

By Jenny Denton

Lina Attalah Storyology

Lina Attalah at Melbourne Storyology event

If Australian journalist Peter Greste hadn’t been arrested, most Australians would never have heard about the media crackdown in Egypt, according to Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah.

Attalah, co-founder and editor of independent online publication Mada Masr, was speaking at a Walkley Foundation Storyology satellite event in Melbourne hosted by Monash University on 8 August.

“Because there was an Australian prisoner in Egyptian jail the world got to know a piece of what Egyptian journalists experience,” Attalah said.

While it was “unfortunate” the West had been paying less attention since Greste’s release, it was “natural” given “the local is what grabs attention in the media”.

“What needs to be known right now is that many other Egyptian journalists continue to be imprisoned today or [experience] other forms of repression,” she said.

Shawkan by Lobna Terek

Photojournalist Shawkan appearing in court in May 2015 (Photo: Lobna Tarek)

In a December 2015 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) identified Egypt as the world’s worst jailer of journalists, after China, with 23 press card-holding reporters in prison. (That ranking has since been overturned by the arrest of more than 42 journalists in Turkey.)

“President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues to use the pretext of national security to clamp down on dissent,” the CPJ report noted.

Against this backdrop, Mada Masr, which was launched just days before the July 2013 military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, is a strikingly bold enterprise.

Collectively owned by a team of 23 journalists and run on democratic principles, the outlet tries to remain “oblivious” to the danger of providing “journalism that constantly challenges and presents all sides of the story”.

Attalah says Mada Masr aims to counter a polarisation between the state and the insurgency in Egypt that has emerged since the coup, instead opening up debate on the spectrum of opinion between those two poles, where “much more is going on”.

It’s a mission shared by a range of new independent news sites in Egypt.

Ultras Nahdawy protesters by Belal Wagdy

Young protesters (from Mada Masr photostory by Belal Wagdy)

“I’d say that if there is a bit of hope in Egypt today, it is that there are those few emerging pockets of independent media, largely operating online, very small in scale, just like us … basically trying to carve a space where there is a productive conversation that can happen,” she said.

Despite the unprecedented level of media repression, which was seeing huge numbers of journalists “opting out” and both reporters and media outlets self-censoring, Attalah believes that project is having some success.

“I sense a bit more opening … in the last year or so in terms of coverage of contested issues, in terms of shedding some light on things the government don’t want to see covered in the media,” she said.

The Walkley Foundation Storyology satellite event in Melbourne was hosted by Monash University and supported by the Melbourne Press Club. It was facilitated by Fairfax foreign editor Maher Mughrabi.

The Walkley Foundation Australia-Arab International Journalism Speaker Program is supported by the Australian Government through the Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR) of the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade.

Read more about Mada Masr

Watch the video of the Melbourne Storyology event

Read the CPJ Egypt report