Egyptian security forces briefly arrested the founder of the country’s last independent media outlet in a growing crackdown on freedom of expression linked to Covid-19.

Lina Attalah, the editor-in-chief of the website Mada Masr, was arrested outside Tora prison in the south of Cairo while interviewing the mother of a jailed activist attempting to bring medication and hand sanitiser to her son.

The activist, Abd El Fattah, has been on hunger strike since mid-April in protest at deteriorating prison conditions, including the risk of the spread of coronavirus as well as the suspension of visits and trial hearings due to the pandemic.

Atallah was taken to a police station and held for undisclosed charges, before she was questioned by a prosecutor. She was later ordered to be released on bail of 2,000 Egyptian pounds (£105).

Mada Masr reported that Attalah’s mobile phone was seized and the media outlet’s lawyer was prevented from seeing Atallah while in detention.

The journalist was recognised by Time magazine as a “new-generation leader,” in 2017, when she was branded the “muckraker of the Arab world”. Mada Masr is internationally recognised as the last bastion of press freedom in Egypt, a lone award-winning independent outlet in a repressive media environment where the majority of newspapers are state-controlled.

Plainclothes security officials raided Mada Masr’s offices last November and Attalah was detained. She was released following international pressure. The website of Mada Masr has been blocked in Egypt since May 2017, one of at least 500 sites blocked in the country.

Attalah’s arrest is part of a pattern of repression connected to Covid-19. Egyptian security forces detained another journalist, Hassan Mahgoub, at his home in early May after he reported a series of stories about the virus. Atef Hasballah, an editor, was bundled into the back of a police van and accused of joining a terrorist group in April after questioning the government’s official statistics about Covid-19 on his Facebook page.

Egypt is considered one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, ranked 166 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service and the head of the journalists’ syndicate, did not respond when contacted for comment.

Timothy Kaldas, of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and a longtime friend of Attalah, said: “Lina’s arrest is yet another example of Egypt’s persistent assault on journalists. It’s worrisome that the latest round of crackdowns coincides with the Covid pandemic. Egyptian authorities may presume this leaves foreign capitals distracted and unprepared to emphasise concerns about political freedoms. A free press that the public can trust for information is all the more vital during a health crisis.”

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