President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has increased censorship in recent years and blocked access to more than 500 websites.
CAIRO—Egyptian security forces raided the offices of the country’s last major independent news organization and arrested three journalists, in one of the most significant attacks on media freedom in the country in years.
Security officers dressed in civilian clothes arrived at the offices of news site Mada Masr in central Cairo on Sunday afternoon and arrested three journalists, including the site’s editor in chief, along with two others, according to the news outlet and witnesses. The three were released hours later after being taken to a nearby police station and haven’t been charged with any crime.
The arrests followed a more-than-two-hour standoff in which the officers sealed the door, trapping several journalists inside, and refused to allow a group of relatives of the journalists, lawyers and foreign diplomats to enter, according to witnesses.
The raid came a day after security officers arrested one of the site’s top editors, Shady Zalat, from his home in Cairo. He was released on Sunday evening, the news outlet said. Mr. Zalat hasn’t been charged with any crime.
An Egyptian government spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the raid.
The raid is an assault on one of the last bastions of press freedom in Egypt, where the government of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has increased censorship in recent years and blocked access to more than 500 websites, including that of Mada Masr.
Since the military coup that brought Mr. Sisi to power in 2013, Egypt has become the third-largest jailer of journalists, according to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and imposed a number of laws restricting traditional and social media. Egypt also has deported and barred entry to several foreign correspondents in recent years.
The clampdown on media is a part of a larger effort by Mr. Sisi’s regime to narrow the space for freedom of expression in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Rights groups and some Western governments have criticized Egyptover the crackdown, but Mr. Sisi enjoys support from President Trump, who referred to the Egyptian leader as “my favorite dictator” at a summit in August, The Wall Street Journal reported.
It remains unclear what triggered Sunday’s raid. The arrests come days after the site published an article saying that Mr. Sisi’s son, who is a top intelligence official, is being reassigned to a post at the Egyptian embassy in Moscow. Any reporting on the president’s family and their apparent role in the regime is rare and considered a sensitive topic by the government.
“This is the only really independent media outlet we have left,” said Rabab El Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “For citizens who are seeking just plain analysis this is a big deal.”
The website has played a critical role in Egypt for years, publishing professional news and analysis while other news organizations were forced to submit to censorship in the years since Mr. Sisi took power.
The organization’s website was blocked in 2017 but continued to publish using social media and other platforms. The site is also a major resource used by foreign governments, researchers and news media tracking events in the country.
“It’s quite clearly the death knell of independent media in Egypt,” said Daniel O’Connell, a senior editor at Mada Masr, who wasn’t among the journalists trapped inside the office. “This is the complete and final takeover of the media.”
The raid comes after Egyptian authorities arrested more than 4,300 people in a clampdown following a series of protests in Septembercalling for Mr. Sisi’s removal. Some of those detained told lawyers and relatives that they were tortured while in prison. The Egyptian government hasn’t commented on the allegations.
The protests were a rare expression of public discontent in Egypt where unauthorized street gatherings are illegal and where security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators in a crackdown following the 2013 military coup.