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
Egyptian 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
Relations 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
Those 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.
Freelance Producer and Correspondent for Dutch and Belgian TV
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!
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.