Revolution came to Egypt, but not to its media. Speaking to Australian journalists recently for The Walkley Foundation’s Storyology conference, Lina Attalah, co-founder and chief editor of Cairo-based news website Mada Masr, argues that journalists in the country are now under even more scrutiny than ever before.
“Obviously there are a lot of restrictions. What the government is trying to do now is to make you feel that they are with you in the newsroom in all sorts of different ways. They have become masters of intimidation, in a way,” says Attalah. “What I know is that there is more fear.”
The Mada Masrteam’s response is to monitor each other, she explains. “We help each other out with it and there is this active sort of energy towards stopping the paranoia and the fear. I guess what I'm saying is that it wasn't even there before – the fear itself, or the need to resist it.”
That Egypt is a difficult place to be a journalist is not in dispute. At Storyology, Attalah sat in conversation with Australian journalist Peter Greste, one of several journalists arrested by Egyptian authorities in recent years; authorities held Greste for more than a year.
Like Greste, Attalah’s presence seemed testament to the challenge facing journalists in Egypt, if not the Middle East in general.
No doubt Attalah is deemed a heroine of free speech in the minds of many. An advocate for unfettered journalism, she has unwittingly also become a guardian of The Fourth Estate.
However, Attalah expresses frustration about a curious phenomenon peculiar to the situation of her team – when Egypt made headlines around the world due to the revolutionary Arab Spring, it also thrust journalists from their uncelebrated positions and into the global spotlight. Observers have now shifted their attention from the news itself, and appear to be more interested in the identities of the journalists behind the news.
We are always represented as the champions of independent journalism in a country where there are no more independent voices.
Those accustomed to reporting the news are not entirely comfortable with their new status as the subject of the news.
“The Guardian did a profile about us … about Mada Masr, the work I do and so on. Even though it's a beautiful account of Mada Masr, we – the team back in Cairo – we're very upset with it, actually. We thought that it completely missed us. It completely didn't go into what we do. It didn't go into how we do what we're doing. It only went into who we are.”
I ask whether she feels if she has been romanticised. Is her reputation as a press-freedom advocate limiting?
“We are always represented as the champions of independent journalism in a country where there are no more independent voices. Nobody cares, for example, that we do cultural coverage.”
Moreover, Mada Masr “is growing to become its own thing”, says Attalah, who acknowledges her role in establishing the website in 2013 with a group of young journalists.
“[But] I'm not going to continue be its Chief Editor forever. It's like a child. They take a few years of very close care, where the defining elements in their lives is their mothers. But then there's a point when the mother becomes almost irrelevant and very marginal and very sidelined, and it's up to the kid to go in the way it needs to grow and in response to audiences. This is how I feel towards Mada.”
“I have my thoughts about what I want out of Mada. We're trying to just mobilise this new kind of journalism where the journalists are very engaged, where the journalists are not shying away from being ‘activist journalists’, where they are political about what they're doing.”
“They're not just professionals. The emotional register is an important aspect of the media.”
Lina Attalah attended Storyology 2016 as an International Speaker for The Council for Arab-Australian Relations (CAAR).