Feature

Five Foreign Journalists Reveal What Life Is Like In Egypt

Five Foreign Journalists Reveal What Life Is Like In Egypt

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What is it like to be a foreign journalist in Egypt? With journalists behind bars, sexual harassment on the rise, and violence often breaking out at demonstrations, it has often been said that Egypt is no longer the safe haven it once was for foreign journalists.

How true are these claims? Egyptian Streets asked five foreign journalists to share their experiences on being a journalist in Egypt since the January 25 revolution in 2011.

Patrick Kingsley, The Guardian

Egypt Correspondent

PatrickKingsleyEgyptian journalists face many more dangers and pressures than their foreign counterparts here. They’re under far more pressure from editors and officials to stick to the party line, and if they get arrested, they haven’t got an embassy to help them out of trouble.

That said, foreign correspondents do in my experience face two kinds of danger. The first is the generic danger you face when working in public spaces, either to interview people in cafes, or to cover protests. In both cases, you risk arousing suspicion from passers-by or the police – and when you’re at a demonstration, you risk being shot. I’ve come under fire a few times in my two years here, and I must have been detained seven or eight times by police and, occasionally, civilians.

The second danger is more specific: when wings of the government target you personally, perhaps for something you’ve written, or when pro-regime broadcasters and writers go after you and your work. It hasn’t happened recently, but there was a period when I was regularly followed by people in plain-clothes. And TV hosts like Osama Kamel sometimes slap my picture up on screen and say irate things about my reporting.

Borzou Daragahi, Financial Times

Middle East and North Africa Correspondent

Borzou_Daragahi_GRNRelations between Egyptians and western journalists soured greatly after the July 3 coup 2013. Many colleagues lost longtime friends, were blocked from Facebook and received angry tirades via social media. To survive many of us sadly were pushed for at least a relatively long period into the kind of expatriate bubble that we never had to deal when we lived, for example, in Lebanon.

But I didn’t realize how strained things had become in Egypt between western journalists and the general public until I traveled to Iraq in the spring of 2014 for the first time since the Arab Spring. It was the first time I had been to Baghdad since US troops left at the end of 2011. From the moment I arrived, I was swarmed with the welcoming embrace of a traditional Arab society — an embrace I had all but forgotten after months in Egypt. I was invited into people’s homes. When I approached people at cafes, they would invite to sit with them. When I told people off the street I was from the US, I would be warmly greeted and welcomed, even told, “We miss Americans.”

I was stunned. Here was a land which the US invaded without provocation after a 12-year bombing and sanctions campaign that devastated the country and destroyed the middle class. Over the next year, the US disastrously disbanded the army, killed hundreds maybe thousands of innocents in bombs and at checkpoints and installed a government that contributed heavily to a ferocious sectarian war that continues to this day. Still they’re telling me and other Americans (including a colleague at another news organizations who is blond, tall and literally looks like a CIA recruit and a former US soldier who served in the country) that they miss us, welcome us into their homes and lives and treat us with typical Arab kindness and respect for strangers.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, Washington is giving the government $1.4bn a year and kissing the regime’s butt and I get insulted and threatened by commentators on television, treated like a second-class citizen by people on the street and accused of being a spy because the US government sending trade delegations to Cairo has supposedly harmed Egypt!

Sonia Dridi, France 24

Foreign Correspondent in Egypt

soniaThose days when I would get my mic out and everyone would be willing to talk, to share their opinions, their fear, and their hopes, seem distant now. When first I arrived in Egypt in February 2011, I really felt a huge wave of freedom and people wanted to share it with the world. Sure, Tahrir Square was not always safe because of sexual harassment as well as recurring clashes. But I never felt targeted simply for being a journalist.

Today, however, the foreign journalist attracts suspicion. When I was filming in the streets of Islamic Cairo a few months ago, some people surrounded and harassed my cameraman because they thought that we were working for Al Jazeera, which is accused by many Egyptians of supporting the islamists. It is one example among others. Many believe foreign journalists want to give Egypt a bad image.

This is a shame that some people are so distrustful of foreign journalists because most of them also chose to live and work in Egypt because they love Egyptian culture and the Egyptian people, and not only because of the tumultuous politics. In fact, when I applied for the job in November 2010 I had no clue that I would be covering a revolution…no one knew…hence, the reason for why I feel so lucky to have witnessed such a moment in History, even if today it seems almost like a mirage….But I have faith in the young generation.

Ruth Vandewalle

Freelance Producer and Correspondent for Dutch and Belgian TV

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I started working as a television producer during the start of the revolution in January 2011. During those crazy days I ended up in live ammunition fights, saw the camels and horses arriving on Tahrir square, learned how to deal with tear gas and electric shocks from the ‘baltageya’…As a start, that could count.

Over the past four years I discovered that my strongest weapons are my gut-feeling (that I follow always), speaking Arabic and my smile. Being in Egyptian streets with a camera crew is definitely not an easy job. I think I became a real ‘crowd manager’ over time. When you enter a neighbourhood, people are mostly very suspicious, until you start talking with them, explaining what you do and asking for their permission. But even when everything seems to go well, it only needs one insisting ‘honourable citizen’ screaming that there are Israeli spies around to heat up the debate until you have pack your stuff and leave as fast as you can.

What always strikes me is the effect of the media on the atmosphere in the streets. There have been several waves of anti-foreign media propaganda. Going from the famous ‘Really?’ advertisement against foreigners (they are all spies!) in 2012 to the Al-Jazeera trial that made Egyptians very aware of how television can be forged. It’s interesting to see how people literally copy-paste the speech of Egyptian television hosts. It became a predictable pattern: when Egyptian media is focusing on the bad role of the foreign media in the country, working on the streets becomes harder again. And so it goes, in ups and downs.

But despite – or even because of – the hardships, I like working in Egypt. For a project I’m doing with Belgian photographer Bieke Depoorter, we travel together to the smallest villages of the country. Every night we look for a place where Bieke can spend the night with a family and photograph them. Over the years it became harder to find people who would give us their trust and open their doors for us. But when it works out, the satisfaction is definitely worth it!

Anonymous

Correspondent for a Western media outlet

Working as a journalist in Egypt brings many privileges. In the years I have lived here, I have met an incredible array of people, from all walks of life, and have often been bowled over by the kind hearted and steadfast nature of a population that has faced incredible challenges, both before and since the 2011 uprising.

But in the wake of the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the working environment for foreign journalists has also changed radically. I have had to deal with a multiplicity of security problems, ranging from death threats to people breaking into my house as I slept.

The use of language in an article has become fraught. Was the period between June 30 and July 3 a coup or a revolution? Everyone has an opinion, and opting for one word or the other invites judgement or censure from those who disagree. It’s not uncommon to get 20 minutes into an interview before the person on the other side of the table stops proceedings to interrogate you on your political agenda.

Walking in the streets has also become more difficult. Harassment is a sad fact of life for every woman in Egypt, and I have been physically assaulted a number of times. These days, I adopt a policy of not reporting from Tahrir Square during packed demonstrations. Too often has it become a site of battery and of rape, and the risks are simply too great.

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  • Abu Saif

    I guess for every one who’s had the time to go through the comments would realize how much foreign reporters working in Egypt’s credibility is questionable now.The articulation and logic of those who made such comments suggest a level of education and knowledge that can’t be denied . As for my self , yes almost all of foreign reporters in Egypt are simply missing the core of their task in Egypt that is to “report”.Any one who’s been living in Egypt through the last 2 years can not deny the hard to miss popularity Sisi’s got among Egyptians neither would heshe miss to recognize the relief among most Egyptians that MBs are out of power.Maybe foreign reporters in Egypt should spend more time meeting real people instead of depending on so-called activists as resources on down down Cairo cafes and bars

  • lyndon_rm

    To balance all the spleen in the comments, I have my own take as an expat living in Egypt for many years. Foreign journalists aren’t all the same. This seems obvious. Not all foreign news organizations always report negatively about Egypt, and when they do it is sometimes deserved. They also do not represent their respective governments’ foreign policies, and journalists working in their own countries are very often critical of things happening there, as is obvious for anyone watching satellite news. And if you want to talk about bias, the extreme pro-government bias of most local Egyptian media would be laughable if it weren’t so aggressive. I’m not going to discuss Egyptian politics because that’s not supposed to be the issue here. I don’t defend all the comments made by all these journalists, nor do I discount them out of hand. I listen and read various opinions about issues that concern and interest me, and try to form an opinion of my own. If I had only local media and no foreign media sources available to me, I wouldn’t be able to do that.

  • inas ramzy

    A very interestting perspective indeed. However it is hardly surprising that Egyptians are very suspicious of reporters after the recent events.
    Egyptian people are a very smart & intuitive people. They are kind, extreemly generous, welcoming and very friendly. However they have been biten and hurt by the media especially the propoganda that Aljazeera amongst many lead and engaged in. Unfortunately many reporters got mixed up with the politics of the foreign policy of their mother land.
    Egyptian people’s trust has to be earned it is not a given, no matter who the journalist is or what country they are from. Mr Daragahi was expecting the Egyptian people to welcome him with open arms and extend their courtesies to him as an Amercian reporter just as the people of Bagdad did because of the aid his America provides (which largely consists of weapons made in American factories). Is he for real what kind of a journalist is he? Is he implying that the Egyptian should forgo his dignity and spill his guts out to the American Journalist because of American aid? He has misread his job specification as a journalism. I guess he thinks being an American journalist makes him an extra special journalist because of his country’s aid. Few and far between nowadays that are outstanding journalists who are passionate about their jobs and earnestly yearn to tell the story as it is without being prejudice, without being players themselves, without being dictated an agenda. Few and far between are those journalists who have high ethics and raise the bench mark of their proffesion.
    Journalism is one of the highly esteemed proffessions in the Egyptian psyche. The Egyptian culture revers the scribe/journalist as he is entrusted with the most sacred thing of all – the truth. However there is absolutely no excuses for violence and harrasment. I guess that is the remenants of the culture of the Brotherhood days.

  • doaa

    very interesting article,
    the more so because its self explanatory on why you as foreign reporters feel what you describe as hostile environment.
    to make it clear lets take a few points from what you said,
    First, Anonymous, you are very right in pointing out that working as a journalist in Egypt brings many privileges. But it seems at times that many who work in Egypt cannot shrug off the “front line reporter mentality” so for many any piece they make about Egypt ( no matter what the issue is) has to be concluded by the same phrase on how the democratic president morsi was overthrown by the army chief who later became president.
    Now to agree or not with that phrase it is up to personal taste and convictions, but surely you must appreciate the fact that to many, some or few egyptians this is a bit more than intimidating, sometimes out right insulting. and also if your conclusion of Egypt is that trio, then allow me to tell you you are missing out on a great opportunity to really make the utmost of being a reporter in Egypt.
    the other thing is the image you portray about the place country whatever you are covering, even if it is about a supposedly good piece of news ( which is usaully not interesting since it does not capture attention i.e. does not sell) but anyway whenever you cover such a story, a usual negative twist has to be inserted there somewhere so for any reader of your publication the overall impression is negative.
    Second Sonia Dridi, saying that aljazeera is accused by many egyptians of supporting Islamists, shall not ask you your assessment of that accusation, as a reporter, for a fellow TV channel , but a slight correction its not islamists its specifically the brotherhood, and its a bit more than support.
    Now more importantly is your statement about how lucky to have wittnessed that moment in History even if today it seems like a mirage. Now offcourse every individual in Egypt let alone those living there have his political opinions and assessments but i think the question that poses itself is the border line between ones own political evaluation and professional responsibility as a reporter.
    As for your point on trust i would like to touch upon it at the end.
    Third Patrik Kingsly, you where complaining that TV hosts like Osama Kamal slap your picture and what you describe as pro regime broadcasters ( as if you are supposed to be anti regime by default) go after you and your work, well thats part of freedom of expression and the media, and for many or some egyptians thats exactly what you are doing with Egypt in your work, so why complain.
    Fourth Borzou, I frankly dont see why washington giving the government 1.4 billion and kissing the regimes butt ( highly professional phrasing) should provide you with any shelter from being insulted by commentators on TV or being treated like a second class citizen by people on the street. My wild guess from what i read is that it has to do more with being a second rate reporter. Also i did not understand that part about ” being a spy because the US government sending whatever….” On Iraq i agree with you , and believe you will enjoy true arab hospitality in Kobani.
    Now more seriously, Ruth was bewildered by the effect of the media on the atmosphere in the streets, and how people literally copy paste the speech of egyptian tv hosts. well you know what, some in Egypt also read and see your work, and apparently they dont like it.
    Sonia was saying its a shame that some people are so distrustful of foreign journalists, I agree with her but with a slight reversing of the order, Its a shame that foreign journalists have lost the trust of the people in Egypt.
    It might be easier to place the blame on all those people through out society and the friends you had for pushing you into this expatriate bubble, but let me remind you that they are not the ones writing these articles or making the reports, they are simply reacting to your work.
    That you have lost the trust of the society in which you live and work is a shame, i just hope you dont lose the whole opportunity of being a reporter in Egypt which is a lot more than just the three words that are repeated throughout your work ” Army, Morsi, Sissy”
    And by the way we know we have lots of problems, but we try to work hard to correct mistakes and overcome problems and challenges, and you are most welcome to join us ” consrtuctively , including constructive criticism”. and in all cases really wish you will have a great time in Egypt , with the exception of Borzou who i wish will enjoy a much better time up east, compliments of Daesh.

  • Minymina

    Well what do you expect the reaction to be when you’re constantly spreading politically correct bias BS. Since the ouster of Morsi, every single foreign news outlet has done nothing but scrutinise the nation and its leaders. Going so far as to demand the release of (guilty) prisoners just because they’re on hunger strike. Writing click bait articles on Human rights and sympathising with the MB group who are killing Egyptians in the Sinai. Speaking of which, we never got none of that “je suis charlie” shit, but instead, articles and airtime of journalists blaming the military for provoking the terrorist!! We aren’t looking for sympathy, nor are we looking for fake positive news, we are looking for the truth.

    I mean, what ever happened to media ethics? WTF happened to not being biased and excluding your opinion from the facts. Granted, Egyptian media is biased as fuck but everyone is aware of that, what they aren’t aware of is that foreign journalist can also be biased and that makes them more dangerous. Especially when they portray us like animals to the rest of the world.

    When you see articles constantly bashing the country even when its good news, biased is involved. Not to long ago, I read an article titled “Egypt builds new Suez Canal…….that will harm the mediterranean”. I mean come on. Of course, that being said, not all foreign journalists are bad. Most are well respected such as Bel Trew (who chose to be anonymous). Unfortunately, they’re hard to tell apart from politically correct assholes like the ones who work for CNN (Christiane Amanpour).

  • Guest

    The last one is Bel Trew.

Feature
@khairatmk

Mohamed Khairat is the Founder and Chief Editor of Egyptian Streets.

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