On Being A Journalist in Egypt

I wrote something last weekend for the LRB blog, about journalism in Egypt these days.  We had to cut some passages, for length, that I'm adding back here on the blog. 

I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.

The trial began yesterday of three al-Jazeera journalists. On 2 February, the private satellite channel Tahrir TV broadcast a video filmed by the Egyptian security services of their arrest. Set to the soundtrack of the movie Thor: The Dark World, the video pans past the frightened face of the Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and then over laptops, tripods and cameras in a room at the Marriot Hotel (the arrested men are known as the ‘Marriot Cell’ in the press here). To an ominous crescendo, it zooms in on cell phones, power cords, recording devices and notes on night stands. The off-camera policemen make Fahmy count out the $700 dollars in his wallet. Then they interrogate him and the Australian correspondent Peter Greste, badgering them for the names of colleagues and interviewees.

The al-Jazeera English crew was working in Egypt without official permits, after the authorities had shut down their offices. But the prosecutor filed much more serious charges against them: He claims they and 17 other journalists were part of a terrorist cell, intent on ruining Egypt’s image by broadcasting fabricated news. Al-Jazeera is reviled here, considered a mouthpiece of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood (to whom the Arabic channel is, indeed, overly sympathetic). There are no al-Jazeera journalists left at liberty in Egypt, yet again and again someone in a crowds points and yells ‘Jazeera!’ at a reporter whose look or questions they don’t like, leading to a mass beating and citizen’s arrest. At the end of January, someone on an Egyptian TV crew posted cell phone footage to YouTube in which, as they attempt to approach clashes between protesters an police, an officer can be heard saying: ‘Get out of here. Get out of here or I’ll say you’re Jazeera.’

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Bassem Youssef on the Egyptian media's "Great Writers"

Another entry in our In Translation series, courtesy of the excellent team Industry Arabic. Comedian Bassem Youssef had his hit satirical news show pulled -- after just one episode -- last Fall. While he looks for new options, he has been one of the few voices of reason and conscience and humor in Egyptian op-ed pages. This column appeared a few weeks back, but what it has to say about local media's free use of anonymous sources, rumors and conspiracy theories is stll (and unfortunately will probably remain for a long time ) relevant.

Your Dear Old Professionalism is Dead, Shorouk newspaper, 24 December

by Bassem Youssef

What I read was not the typical sort of Facebook nonsense. And it wasn't a "prank" on one of those fake forums; it was a respectable article penned by the Great Writer.

There are a few names that just need to appear on any article for it to receive the "stamp of authority." For the Great Writer and Journalist cannot just flush his history down the drain and publish "any old drivel and that's it."

But between the "stamp of authority" and what I read I'm at a loss about what to believe.

Here the Writer is narrating true and accurate details about what happened between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler.

And oh my what details!!!

The Secretary of State conveys to the king serious information about Qatar and their relations with Israel and the article goes on to relate how the Secretary of State fidgeted and how the Ruler cleared his throat. The article narrates with great precision what the US Secretary of State told him, from the opening "Allow me, Your Highness, to tell you a critical secret," to secret phone calls between Obama, the emir of Qatar and Erdogan, to how a Syrian minister snuck into Jordan dressed as a woman, to details about the latest episode of "Sponge Bob."

The article did everything short of following the minister into the bathroom!!!

The article was not a general account of what happened between the two parties – you know, the big picture. It was a word-by-word script with choice lines from a screenplay by Osama Anwar Okasha.

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Podcast #43: Minority Report

A manly president, a bride like the moon -- this is Egypt,  Americans!

A manly president, a bride like the moon -- this is Egypt,  Americans!

The Arabist podcast is back after a long summer break, hosted by regulars Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil and featuring Lina Attalah, editor of Mada Masr. We discuss terrorism and military operations in the Sinai peninsula; the Egyptian media's cheering of the army; and the shortcomings of Egypt's new constitution. 

Podcast #43  (MP3, 30.1 MB) - or subscribe on iTunes.

Show notes:

With or against us

Sarah Carr on the new regime's vision of the media.  

It looks like we are heading towards media oppression that will be worse than under 2011. There is a public appetite for it and the security bodies have apparently been given a green light to do as they please. Wars on terrorism rely on crude binaries: you are either with us or against us, and this is the constant message being relayed to us (Hegazy even said during the presser yesterday that Egypt is "taking note of who is with it and who is against it"). Attempting to steer through the choppy mess that is Egypt at the moment with such a simplistic approach is disastrous and is intended to reinforce the fiction that there are only two camps in Egypt. This is about bolstering the military regime's strength, and its strength is dependent on the creation of an equal and opposing force against which it must pit itself. The Brotherhood has become its raison d'etre: There is no other reason to justify its current position and current actions.

 

"Egypt rejects American Satan"

Remember this headline, in the state-owned newspaper of a supposedly secular, US-friendly regime run by a military that receives $1.3bn in US aid per year.  Via:

And while we're at it: 

10 hours of talking

Nour The Intern was assigned the task of monitoring Egypt’s rambunctious talk shows for an evening. This is her report.

After watching four consecutive hours of TV talk shows, followed by six hours online watching the talk shows I missed while watching TV – all telling me exactly how much I love and trust the army (a.k.a. The People's Army, The Patriotic Army and The Great Egyptian Army) whose generals and their predecessors and ancestors I ought to be writing a thank-you letter for – I was basking in the knowledge that helped my people save Egypt from terrorism and I wanted to buy a villa in Mountain View so I, too, could finally enjoy a quiet picnic with my wife.

What’s more baffling than my forgetting my financial status and my sexual orientation is the continuation of debate about whether or not there was such a thing as secular media bias, as if the tears of joy, the singing, the woo-hoos and the flag-waving that took place on-air moments after Morsi’s removal didn’t give anything away. 

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Today's Egyptian newspaper headlines

 State-owned:

al-Ahram: "Egypt abandoned to fear"

al-Akhbar: "Egypt on fire" 

al-Gomhoureya: "The longest day in the history of Egypt" 

Rose al-Youssef: "The people wants to decide its own fate" 

 Private press (mostly anti-Morsi):

al-Masri al-Youm: "Revolutionaries to Morsi: one year was enough"

al-Shorouk al-Jadid: "30 June: Egypt delivered to its fate" 

Youm al-Saba3e: "Red card for the president: 22 million signatures for Tamarrod" 

Al-Tahrir: "Leave!" 

al-Destour: "Today is the end of Morsi and of his gang"

Of Gaza and KFC

Of Gaza and KFC


What started out as a blurb on the Xinhua news site this week on the smuggling of KFC for US$30 an order into Gaza via Egypt - a tunnel trek that can take between 3 and 7 hours - has gone viral, prompting several other outlets to send correspondents into Gaza to report on the Al Yamama delivery company’s entrepreneurial niche. The tunnels have been used to deliver everything from rockets and rebar to TVs and fiancées - up to 30% of all the strip’s imports come through them, says Reuters - so fast food is not a stretch, even at the prices quoted.

Unfortunately, most social media responses to it have focused on the novelty at the expense of the context, even though the two fullest accounts I have read, from the NYTand Christian Science Monitor, do address the environment of the Israeli blockade and the tunnel economy that the Egyptians have been cracking down on so hard these days to try and interdict Sinai arms smuggling.

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Iraqi media ban and sectarianism

Paul Mutter writes in:

I have a piece at Tech President about the Iraqi government's decision to suspend the broadcasting licenses for 10 channels in the country following what is now two weeks of sectarian violence concentrated in and around Baghdad. One of the networks was Al Jazeera, but except for a single Kuwaiti channel that is meant to appeal to Shia Iraqis, the rest were either based in Iraq or owned by Iraqi expatriates, and are regarded by their critics as anti-government, pro-Sunni and, for some, pro-Baathist:

The networks’ offices have not been closed down, but they are no longer permitted to broadcast in the country. Wamith Al-Kassab, an Iraqi journalist, explained that the feeling among most Iraqis is that “people want peace, and if shutting a few channels will make this so, then why not?”

"It was no surprise that this crackdown happened the way it has because a few weeks ago, four newspaper offices were attacked by Shia militiamen in Baghdad”. This event, he said, "did not have the same effect as it used to have [on public opinion],” a sign of the exhaustion and mistrust Iraqi audiences feel towards media outlets in their country.

In Iraq today, he continued, the news media “is controlled by either pro-government forces, or by people that see in the Sunni demonstrations a chance for the past to return or a way for Iraq to became like Syria," alluding to the defunct Baathist Party of Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) formed by Sunni Arabs who seek to topple the Shia-dominated government of Nour al-Maliki. With Maliki's Shia coalition government in power, Sunni Arab media has the most to gain in criticizing the government — and also the most to lose in this tense moment if brought up on charges as accessories to the Sunni militiamen blamed for the spate of shootings and bombings in the past two weeks that have left hundreds killed and wounded.

Wamith gave me a lot of helpful context about the relationship between particular domestic channels and the government, plus the general state of press freedom in his country. The actions Maliki et al. took this past week against the networks shows just how deeply non-Sunni establishments have come to distrust the politics of the "Sunni media" these days - think of Al Jazeera Arabic's reception in Egypt and Syria nowadays. But, there is a lot of debate that is particular to Iraq's volatile coalition politics and general war-weariness, as I note that when "people doubt the independence of the media because outlets take up increasingly partisan stances for or against the Maliki government's policies, outlets risk becoming more polarized towards a pro-government line or towards positions espoused by the Islamist parties."

Read the whole article here.

The Death of Egypt Independent

Of all the homages to Egypt Independent, this one by former staff member Jenna Krajeski in the New Yorker spoke the most to me — especially this bit:

To say that I was lucky to work at the newspaper when I did is vastly inadequate; I was lucky in a way that makes me think I may have used up all my life’s good charm in that one instance, and I’m fine with that. It’s not just that I got to witness a revolution or work among friends, it’s that those friends had maintained such an enviable idealism and commitment to journalism that some rubbed off on me. I came to understand the value of local journalism, and I got to know Cairo in a way I hadn’t before and couldn’t have at a desk job. A local newspaper is a magnifying glass, and no one has better insight on a city than a reporter assigned a few meager square blocks.

I could say exactly the same thing (minus the revolution) about my time at the Cairo Times in 2000-2003 and Cairo in 2005. When I think of the people I worked with there, I can think of a dozen of very talented people who went on to great things (one of them even married me). Some of the Egyptians that I worked with and for whom I think the magazine was as formative an experience as it was for me did particularly well. My former colleagues Hossam Bahgat and Hossam El-Hamalawy, for instance, went on to be respectively among their country's leading human rights and labor activists. And Lina Attallah, a young intern I hired in 2001 as she was going through journalism school, was particularly promising. She went on to become the editor of Egypt Independent.

Disinformation and Egypt's multiple realities

I used to joke that Egyptians have their own reality distortion field, which once entered can lead you to believe that their country is center of the universe and where black is white, the patently untrue is brandied as incontrovertible fact, ​and a person will assure you of one thing when its opposite is plain to see in front of your very eyes. 

In the current media scene, the Egyptian reality distortion field has multiplied into (at least) two views of reality: one in which the Muslim Brotherhood is a savior that will guide the country to a Renaissance and Mohammed Morsi is geopolitical genius; another in which an Iranian-Israeli-American plot to install the Brotherhood threatens to unravel the country. The latter discourse is more shrill and insane, perhaps due to the fact that Islamists control a small minority of the print media in the country, that their numerous satellite channels have less compelling non-religious programming, and that their normal discourse is bizarre and nasty enough for the propaganda to be relatively tame. The two worlds co-exist and occasionally collide, a bit like the sci-fi show Fringe​.

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Egypt Independent shuttered

Egypt Independent, an excellent publication we have grown to rely on and have written about before, has been shut down by its parent company, Al Masry Al Youm, and its new CEO, Abdel Moneim Said. (Mr. Said was a member the NDP Policies Secretariat and one of the brains behind the Gamal Mubarak project; he became CEO of state flagship Al Ahram in the last year before Mubarak's ouster. The last time I interviewed him, he was facing an insurrection from some of his own journalists and was soon to lose his job for his support of the Mubarak regime -- here is an old column of his defending the fraudulent 2010 parliamentary elections). 

While this is a difficult economic climate for the press and while Egypt Independent may very well have been running deficits, the Al Masry Al Youm administration seems to have been very uninterested in the many different proposals to keep the online version, at least, running, until new investors could be found. In fact it's not clear if the journalists who have put in four years of hard work will have any access to the name and archive they built. And they were not allowed to print a final, 50th edition of the paper that reflected critically on its own history, experience, and relationship with its mother company. 

Instead, Al Masry Al Youm sent out this disingenuous email to its subscribers -- which was of course skewered here. 

The team at Egypt Independent is regrouping and hopes to launch a new publication as soon as possible. Make sure to get your subscription money back form Al Masry Al Youm (call 16533) so we can give it to them instead when they're ready. And you can follow them on Facebook for updates. 

In a media landscape that is extremely polarized -- where different political and business interests support media outlets as a way to further their agendas -- Egypt Independent was that rarity, a professional independent outlet that asked uncomfortable questions. 

But what's happened to them -- and I really encourage you to read their final issue, which delves into all the challenges facing independent media in Egypt today -- is not unique. The Daily News Egypt closed earlier this year, only to open under new (and, to believe this recent article, troubling) management. Al Ahram Online's beloved editor, Hany Shukrallah, was sacked recently. All this at a time when Egypt needs unbiased and ground-breaking local coverage more than ever.