Clara Zid, December 2021
Nora Younis is the executive director at the Egyptian Al Manassa, a miracle of independent journalism in one of the world’s most repressive countries.
– I am a journalist, a mother, and a free person, says Nora.
Nora leads a media platform that gives voice to everyone, at a time when voices are silenced by laws and repression. A difficult and dangerous work at times.
– It is difficult to be a female journalist in Egypt, and it is even more difficult to head an independent media organization and be responsible for a team of journalists as a woman, explains Nora.
Al Manassa’s website has been blocked inside Egypt since June 2017, only 18 months after the media was founded in 2016. In spite of that they find creative, yet stressful, ways to reach their audience. In 2020, their office was raided and Nora was arrested.
– The charges against me were never dismissed. They still stand but the case was never moved to court, yet. This is a way of keeping human rights defenders in limbo or gray areas, says Nora.
She lives with a sword of Damocles hanging over her head. Nora still does not know why their office was raided, why she was arrested, or why she was released on bail. Nora says that she likes to believe that their professional journalism was the reason for intimidation.
– We always expect the police to come back, because as far as we know, nothing has changed. Our reporting is still the same and the repression in Egypt is still the same.
Al Manassa is a successful experiment of citizen journalism in Egypt. It’s a platform where not only journalists but also readers can write and become journalists.
– I started as a citizen journalist and a blogger and I have always wanted to give the same chance to others who are out there. Al Manassa provides editorial support and an opportunity to be published to citizens who are passionate about reporting and speaking about their realities.
“Al Manassa is a successful recipe for free speech and representation of the voiceless, especially with the authorities monopoly over the media“
Al Manassa was born in 2016 but its journalism model was not understood the first two years.
– This was even made more difficult when the authorities blocked our website in the middle of our second year. Al Manassa is now six years old and it has become a successful recipe for free speech and representation of the voiceless, especially with the authorities monopoly over the media and the scarcity of professional journalism.
Almost all Egyptian media outlets are owned by the authorities, directly or indirectly. Several independent media organizations have shut down over the past few years. Journalists are routinely arrested and many of them receive long sentences or spend years locked up without a trial. Few independent media remain in Egypt and Al Manassa is one of those rare examples.
– Egypt is a country of 100 million people with good access to the Internet and only two independent media organizations covering politics.
But the government makes life for them difficult. In October 2018, the Egyptian Supreme Council for Media Regulations called all media to apply for a license. Al Manassa applied but they never received a reply, nor a license.
– According to the new media law, if an outlet does not receive a rejection within 90 days of application, it is considered approved. Yet, things do not work that way. They place you in a sort of limbo, and remove you it that way.
The police that raided Al Manassa in 2020 claimed the outlet was illegal because they didn’t have the license to publish. Nora showed them how they had applied but never received a response.
The Internet blocking of Al Manassa’s website is another hurdle for the media outlet.
– The blocking is illegal. There is no known entity that has claimed responsibility for the blocking or announced that this was a reaction to a certain violation. The website was blocked simply because we published a professional piece that someone did not like.
Al Manassa’s first reaction was to change the domain name to avoid the blocking but they didn’t imagine that every new domain name they bought would be censored.
– So far we have moved to more than 23 domain names and subdomains. Our latest is wwww.almanassa.run (four Ws). We are sick and tired of this cat and mouse game that is damaging to our internal links, the readers’ ability to find our content via search engines and to our business model.
In September 2020, Qurium published a joint investigation with Al Manassa on the blocking of their website. Qurium identified that equipment from Sandvine was used to block Al Manassa on Telecom Egypt and Orange Egypt networks. The Canadian company Sandvine has under recent years become infamous for its support to Internet repressive regimes.
–Selling surveillance technology in general, and specifically to repressive regimes, should be tied with strings. I could only compare that to selling weapons to dictators who use it against unarmed civilians. Censoring independent professional reporting only gives room to the spread of fake news and people’s misinformation.
But, despite all problems, Nora is optimistic.
– We at Al Manassa realize that we are lucky to still be in business. We are one of the last independent media organizations operating from inside Egypt and this is both an opportunity and a responsibility. We are committed to continue to work as long as we can.
Nora was an activist and blogger before being a journalist. She focused on reporting protest movements in Egypt, using Twitter and videos to report rallies, arrests, state violence and police brutality. One of her most famous blog post includes her testimonial about the brutal police raid on a Sudanese refugee protest Camp in Cairo in 2005, where at least 27 people were killed. The blog post was translated to seven languages and was used in lawsuits and human rights reports.
“Just being a professional journalist in Egypt is in itself considered activism because of the repressive environment”
In 2006, a bureau chief of an international media outlet offered her to cover Mubarak’s presidential campaign.
– I was trained in journalism by foreign correspondents who I worked with at the Washington Post, and this marked the full end of the activist in me. Then I developed a self censorship to separate the reporting from the advocacy, until I realized that just being a professional journalist in Egypt is in itself considered activism because of the repressive environment.
In 2008, Nora won the Human Rights First for her work using new media tools, such as social networks, to expose human rights violations and police brutality.
– Back in 2008 there was no live streaming on social media like there is today, and there was only Facebook and Twitter. The social networks were not as popular as they are today. However, the nowadays widespread use of social media and the diversity in networks did not result in a more open and informed society because they are crippled by heavy regulations like the cybercrime and terrorism laws and by offline targeting of activists for their online activity. Egypt now has police departments dedicated for monitoring the online sphere and a fleet of legislations to ensure that no birds are singing criticism or opposition. Pretexts of national security and “family values” are used against “tick-tockers” and “youtubers”. Everyday we see bogus charges used to silence voices.
As a mother in this repressive context, with the risk of being arrested at any time, Nora tries to make every moment count for her two children.
– I try to create good memories, spend meaningful vacations together and have as many adventures together as possible. I try to take them with me on business trips, explain my job to them and hope they will understand if one day I am not there.
Al Manassa is hosted with Virtualroad.org since 2020.