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Egypt Escalates Pressure on Last Major Independent News Site

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Security forces raided the publication’s office, detaining three editors, the day after arresting another editor.

By Nada Rashwan

CAIRO — Egyptian security forces on Sunday escalated their pressure on the last major independent news outlet in the country, raiding its offices and temporarily detaining three top editors. Another editor of the publication, Mada Masr, had been arrested on Saturday.

Mada Masr, which publishes online in both Arabic and English, has won international accolades for its pioneering investigative reporting despite a six-year crackdown on press freedom under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Egypt has become one of the world’s most aggressive jailers of reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and security forces have arrested eight other journalists since a flurry of antigovernment street protests in September.

Almost all of the state and privately owned media now speak with a single pro-government voice. Most of the privately owned Egyptian news media has been quietly taken over by intelligence agencies or allies of Mr. Sisi’s.

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Mada Masr, however, has defied the government pressure and continued to publish groundbreaking investigations, including a report last week that the president’s son, Mahmoud el-Sisi, was being removed from his senior role in the intelligence agencies because of his poor performance.

The Egyptian authorities have blocked access to the Mada Masr in Egypt for the last two years. But the publication has remained an indispensable source of information for Egyptian activists and intellectuals, who can often reach it via a VPN service, as well as for Western analysts and policymakers. Its Arabic name is a play on words that literally means the scope of Egypt but could also refer to a stone-setting, as though Egypt were a jewel.

The tightening of government pressure on Mada Masr escalated Saturday with the arrest of a senior editor, Shady Zalat, 37, in a dawn raid on his home. After being held at an undisclosed location overnight, Mr. Zalat was released on Sunday evening by the side of a highway, Mada Masr said in a statement.

In the hours before his release, as many as nine armed plainclothes security officers raided the Mada Masr offices. The officers detained the organization’s staff, confiscated their telephones, and interrogated them for three hours. The officers also asked some of the journalists to unlock their smartphones and laptops and searched their devices.

The editor in chief, Lina Attalah, along with the journalists Mohamed Hamama and Rana Mamdouh, were then briefly detained at a nearby police station. Ms. Attalah, 36, founded Mada Masr in 2013, shortly before the military takeover that brought Mr. Sisi to power.

In addition, two foreign nationals working in Cairo for Mada Masr — Ian Louie, an American, and Emma Scolding, a British citizen — were forced to present their passports for inspection but ultimately released. Another American editor, Daniel O’Connell, 28, was recently stopped at Cairo’s international airport, deported and barred from re-entering the country.

Muhammad Nagui, a researcher at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Cairo, said that raiding the office of an internationally well known publication was a line the government had rarely crossed. But certain topics, like reporting on the president’s family, “are a red line for journalists,” he said.

“This is a message to any independent voice,” he added. “If you cross the line we draw for you, we will crush you.”

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from London.