How Mada Masr is surviving Egypt’s authoritarianism

In Egypt's depressing human rights landscape, the independent news site shines bright as one of the few beacons of hope.
Updated Jul 18, 2019 12:13am

"The goal of journalism to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted and to give voice to the voiceless, is one that guides us in what we cover, how we cover it and who we speak to," states the mission statement of Mada Masr, a well-known Arabic and English online journalism platform from Egypt.

In a depressing human rights landscape in that country and the region overall, Mada Masr shines bright as one of the few beacons of hope.

The independent publication was founded in Cairo by a group of young journalists six years ago. I met up with Mada Masr’s co-founder and chief editor Lina Attalah in Germany at the Kultur Symposium last month.

We spoke about the birth of the publication, the pressures it faces from the Egyptian authorities and how Lina manages to run the operation in a testing environment; an environment that journalists in Pakistan may relate to.

The interview below has been edited for clarity.

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INTERVIEWER

Lina, can you tell me the origins of your publication, what’s the idea behind it?

LINA

In 2013, a group of journalists and I were working for a big media company, and there came a point when they didn’t want us to work for them anymore.

It was also the year when there were mass protests against the elected Islamist government [in Egypt] that eventually led to a takeover by the military, which continues to rule the country up until this moment.

So when we were shown the door by this media company, there was no other option for us to continue doing what we were doing except that if we created our own institution. At the same time, we sensed the urgency because we felt that the country was going through a deeper level of transformation for which there will be no good or honest record. That’s really how it started.

It’s desiring to be present and functioning as a journalist at a time when we would see major freedoms be violated, a whole set of new restrictions being put in place and how you would live through this and how you would write about it — this is really what we wanted to do.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges that you face, especially in the online sphere?

LINA

The major challenge that we are working through right now is the block. In 2017, the government started anonymously blocking a small number of websites, which [has] eventually grow[n] to reach over 500 websites at this point, and one of the first ones to blocked was ours. How to generate mirror sites and how to make sure that people can access the information that we worked really hard on, that’s our main challenge.

We also have some financial challenges. Due to the block, the loss of advertisement also meant the loss of other potential sources of revenue. That’s how we were dealt with.

The blocking of the website is quite paralysing. It doesn’t end your operation, but it puts you in a situation that requires needing to work around the problem.

More broadly, I feel concerned about how they will get to us, how bad it will be and what kind of price we will pay.

It was living with that fear and, at the same time, not letting it get in the way of producing and working and not resisting interesting stories, even if they put you at risk.

INTERVIEWER

Other than the block, have there been other instances where you have had to face pressure from the government?

LINA

That, I would say, is the main one. Otherwise, all other pressure is in very indirect ways.

We’ve been — indirectly — asked about people who are being arrested, [who have] contributed [for us in the past]. So it’s very indirect, they make you feel that they are present but haven’t done anything yet. But the short answer is that the block has really been the main pressure, nothing else really.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned fear — what is creating that fear? Maybe not against you, but perhaps there are things that have happened to other journalists and publications that contribute to the fear...

LINA

Exactly, the fact that we seem to be living in a state where there is zero tolerance for dissidence, in ways that I hadn’t experienced even before the revolution, during the other authoritarian regime that preceded the present one.

It’s this idea that everybody is getting picked up, everybody around us, like the circle is tightening and tightening. I feel like we’re the only media out there still able to do something, or at least one of the very few remaining.

However, we are the biggest in terms of the information and the volume of work. It’s like, being alone and isolated in a context that continues to send you a message every day that there is zero tolerance, but for some reason you are still there; somehow, you’re still left. So it makes you question, when will my turn be?

INTERVIEWER

What is the revenue model that your publication is trying to survive on?

LINA

We started a membership programme to capitalise on the idea that people should be paying for good information.

So we have a membership club. To join, you can pay according to one of seven tiers, depending on your abilities, and in return you get additional services.

We never put the content behind a paywall. The content remains free, but if you become a member, you get some add-ons in the shape of services and products.

We have some editorial services, both unsolicited and solicited. The unsolicited ones, they are up for subscriptions, so people subscribe and pay for a morning digest that we produce every day. We also have an events platform; we try to organise ticketed events from which we can get some revenue. That’s mainly how we run.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of censorship, is there any content that you absolutely cannot publish or something that you have to be really careful publishing?

LINA

That’s what I meant when I said compromising. If there’s a story I have and it’s well-served, especially if it’s very sensitive and it’s very well-served in terms of evidence, in terms of sourcing, in terms of making it very hard to, in prosecution processes, be accused, we don't question — we just publish.

The idea is not to publish just anything, to make it seem like we are blindly brave. We are negotiators, we play politics, but the rule for me is if the story is well-served then there is no argument.

INTERVIEWER

But have you faced pressure directly from the state when you publish a story? For example, in Pakistan, when you publish certain stories you might sometimes be called to court as to why you did it.

LINA

It has happened in the past and, yes, it was scary and everything, but I never questioned if it was the right decision to publish.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the topics that you get the most state attention from? National security? Human rights?

LINA

Military stuff. So, talking about the military institution, pinpointing their practices, hinting at corruption, that’s the thing that irks them the most.

I would say primarily the entire security institution, the military and the intelligence. When we do stories about them, it gets attention and they don’t like it.

INTERVIEWER

What about the reception from your readers? A newspaper can survive if it has social support in society and in different segments of society. What is your reception when it comes to that?

LINA

I feel that when we started, it was a moment of polarisation between the military and the Islamists. It was hard to gain traction from beyond the very traditional circle of supporters for our project.

INTERVIEWER

And what is that traditional circle?

LINA

Liberal leftists, in the Western sense, people who were part of the 2011 revolution. It’s really that contingency, and I think what happened with time is the subsiding of the polarisation and the military takeover.

The fact that people have been saying that we have been producing simple, professional content and that it is not trying to push this or that ideology made us gain more ground, it made us gain more mainstream audiences who are not necessarily pro-revolution or leftist, but need information and there is no other source of information, so they come to us. We’ve been gaining more mainstream audiences over the years and I think that’s an interesting development.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe the media landscape in Egypt?

LINA

Right now, it’s a very fractured environment, in the sense that we have a few surviving veteran state-media which have no influence whatsoever. They have very outdated forms of production, not to mention complete control by the state.

In parallel, we have very few surviving privately-owned media that have either been recently acquired directly by the intelligence or continue to be dependent on the state and intelligence but completely aligning themselves to the authorities in order to be able to survive, because otherwise they won’t be able to.

Then we have the third stream; these are the very few websites, like ours, that tried to be completely independent, that don’t have the same sort of outreach that the mainstream media has, but are somewhat surviving and giving out a different kind of information.

INTERVIEWER

So in Pakistan, we have a sort of divide between the English press and the Urdu press. The English press is still allowed to function and is tolerated despite its criticism of the state, but the clampdown on the Urdu press is a lot heavier because, I suppose, the state fears the penetration of local media. Is that the case in Egypt as well?

LINA

It has been the dynamic for some time, but recently there has been more attention directed towards the English media because the state doesn’t like the embarrassment it brings when it enters international circles. So we’ve had situations where the Cairo bureau chief of the New York Times [Declan Walsh, previously the Times’ Islamabad bureau chief, who was expelled from Pakistan in 2013] was summoned and interrogated. His predecessor was deported from Egypt altogether.

So there is more attention paid towards the English-speaking media, specifically the international media, just because of how they can embarrass our regime, which likes to maintain a polite picture of a modern reformist in front of the Western world in particular. That makes the English media more relevant.

INTERVIEWER

What about media in the region? Do you think Egypt is perhaps still better than what’s out there in the rest of the Middle East, or do you think there are other countries that are leading with better examples?

LINA

Media-wise, the whole region is subscribing to the global media crisis. Even the established media that are traditionally freer, traditionally more professional, in Lebanon [for example], are facing a major crisis right now, be it political or financial, and are shutting down.

There is a crisis everywhere; I don’t think that Egypt is in a better position. I don’t really know who is in a better position.

You obviously are not trying to compare us with places that are completely conflict-ridden like Yemen, Libya or Syria. So in a context of comparison with other countries where we don’t have war, we are equally in a terrible place, more or less, where we have a few reformist voices that are trying to push the boundaries, and then the big, mainstream beacons of traditional media that are losing their influence more and more.