US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on close ally Egypt to respect freedom of the press in the wake of a crackdown that followed protests, reports confirmed on Tuesday.
Pompeo made the call unprompted at a news conference after more robust criticism of adversary Iran, which has severed internet access as it also clamps down on demonstrators.
"As part of our long-standing strategic relationship with Egypt, we continue to raise the fundamental importance of respect for human rights, universal freedoms and the need for a robust civil society," Pompeo said.
"We call on the Egyptian government to respect freedom of the press and release journalists detained during a raid last weekend," he added.
David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, later said that Washington was watching a controversial law recently amended by the Egyptian parliament that rights groups say will strictly curb non-governmental organisations.
"We urge Egypt to ensure that the new NGO laws implementing regulations don't restrict civil society, US assistance programs and Egypt's economic growth," Schenker told reporters.
He called on Egypt to "ensure journalists can work without threats of imprisonment and intimidation."
Egypt jails more journalists than any country other than China and Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog.
In one of the most recent episodes, plainclothes officers raided the Cairo office of news outlet Mada Masr, demanding that journalists unlock and hand over their phones and laptops.
Three journalists including chief editor Lina Attallah were arrested but eventually released.
Unidentified, plain-clothes security forces forcibly entered the website's office on Sunday, confiscating the phones and laptops of journalists and preventing anyone from leaving or entering the office.
Two foreign nationals working for the website, Ian Louie and Emma Scolding, had also been questioned by the security forces. An initial post by the news outlet suggested their imminent deportation was feared - the fate of several foreign correspondents working in Egypt in recent years - but both were released shortly after.
Founded in 2013, Mada Masr is known to many as the last independent news outlet in Egypt, one of the world's worst offenders against press freedom, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Analysts and activists who cover Egypt have condemned the security forces detention of five of the outlet's journalists, fearing that further attacks against the investigative site may signal the death blow to press freedom in the country.
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took power in a coup in 2013, the government has targeted independent media, banning more than 500 websites, including The New Arab, Al-Jazeera and Mada Masr, and brought much of the rest of the press under state control.
Despite being blocked, Mada Masr has continued to publish journalism that has won international praise, with Egyptians only able to access its articles through mirror websites or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). That international notoriety seemed to have incubated the website and its staff from the more serious attacks inflicted on other members of the Egyptian press until now.
Observers have pointed to one article in particular that may have triggered the raid on Mada Masr's staff and office.
Published on Thursday, the article alleged the Egyptian president's son, Mahmoud al-Sisi, had been sidelined for failing to manage his responsibilities as a senior intelligence official.
Instead of remaining in Cairo, Mahmoud Sisi will be moved to Egypt's diplomatic mission in the Russian capital Moscow as a military attache, the report said, citing unnamed Egyptian and Emirati sources.
Speaking to Mada Masr, one intelligence official said the president's son had been blamed for mishandling a series of corruption allegations thrown against Sisi and the military in September.
The accusations of endemic misappropriation of public funds by former military contracted Mohamed Ali resulted in weeks of unprecedented protests against Sisi.
Pompeo's statement comes despite warm relations between President Donald Trump and his counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with the US leader hailing the former military chief's opposition to Islamism.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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