The news website that’s keeping press freedom alive in Egypt

Leslie T Chang reports: On the afternoon of 17 June 2013, a group of friends gathered in a fourth-floor apartment in downtown Cairo. They sat on the floor because there were no chairs; there were also no desks, no shelves, and no ashtrays. A sign on the door, written in black marker, read “Office of the Artists Formerly Known as Egypt Independent”. What they had was a name – Mada, which means “span” or “range” in Arabic, had been chosen after much debate and many emails between 24 people – and a plan to set up an independent news outlet. Most of them had not seen each other since their former employer, a newspaper called Egypt Independent, closed two months before.

Lina Attalah, the venture’s founder and editor-in-chief, called the meeting to order. Designers were rushing to finish the website; a team was drafting a business plan; half a dozen grant applications were pending. “The update is: there’s no money,” she said, to laughter, “but we have a lot of promises. I’m working on the faith that the money will be there.” She signed off on 17 articles to be delivered over the next week. Lina is dark-eyed and fine-boned, with long black hair; she speaks in lengthy and well-wrought sentences that suggest a professor teaching a graduate seminar. Nothing in her demeanour betrayed the pressures she felt. The company had no cash to pay its writers. She was covering the rent and furnishing the office out of her own pocket. This would be, by her count, her seventh news venture; many of the previous ones had folded owing to the hostility of successive governments towards independent-minded journalists (“I have a history of setting up places that close”). Although she was only 30 and didn’t have a husband or children, Lina was accustomed to taking care of other people.

The website had to launch by 30 June, the day that a mass demonstration calling for the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, was planned. Lina was determined about that – “I want everyone to be a journalist on that day” – but otherwise her timing could not have been worse. In the previous two and a half years, investment in Egypt had dried up; many foreign companies had evacuated their staff during the 2011 revolution and not returned. Morsi’s year in office had seen decreasing stability and a stagnant economy. Whatever came next – people were calling for the army to step in – could be more repressive.

“I think it could just be slow-motion state failure,” Lina said.

“Not state failure,” objected Dina Hussein, a close friend from college and the new website’s opinion editor. “Of course, the infrastructure is shit, there’s no electricity …”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Lina interrupted. “Not complete collapse.”

“Lebanon, not Somalia,” Dina said.

“It could be state failure for the next 10 years,” Lina said.

Everything about the project belied this pessimism. Mada Masr would be an independent online newspaper, owned by employees whose average age was 25, in a country where news production was controlled by the government or large conglomerates. It would produce stories, in English and Arabic, and make money from online advertising and side businesses in research, editing and translation. The company would be run as a democracy – in a country that had never seen such a system, by employees who, by and large, had not experienced it in practice. Egypt was ostensibly on a parallel course of building a democratic and sustainable state; both ventures were perilous, fraught with uncertainty, and short of money. In the year and a half to come, Mada’s goals would prove more daunting than its founders imagined. A military coup, set into motion three days after the website launched, would lead to the ruthless suppression of dissenting voices. Mada would emerge as one of the very few independent news sources in the country. [Continue reading…]

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