Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #1

Over the past few months, I’ve been learning a lot through interviews and brief chats with Egyptian journalists. Recently, I talked to Amira Salah-Ahmed, business editor at the Daily News Egypt, as well as a poet and the co-author of a book called Diaries of the Revolution (which at the moment is only in Italian, unfortunately). We sat down at Cilantro, a posh coffee shop near her newspaper office, roughly a week after the spate of violence at Tahrir in November. The foreign press had spent a week covering the violence and was just beginning to make note of the fact that the rest of Egypt was going about their daily lives as normal and that many cab drivers and shopkeepers weren’t necessarily supportive of the protest movement. The terms “Silent Majority” and “Party of the Couch” had just become common parlance.

I mentioned this to Amira, and she lept into oratorical first gear: “The silent majority has a right to participate in the rhetoric and the discourse that’s going on, and they have the right demand to whatever it is they see that they need for their lives to take a certain shape,” she told me, ordering a vanilla latte and making a sharp rhetorical left turn. “But at the same time, if...they are demanding something that will kind of perpetuate a kind of military dictatorship or something that doesn’t stand for equality and justice for all people, different religions or races or ideological differences or classes, if they’re not demanding that kind of democracy, then the question is do they have a right to democracy?”

Having grown up in Long Island, New York and attended the American University in Cairo, Amira is one a generation of young journalists who face a dilemma over their relationship to political events. They were educated under the Western journalistic model, which shuns advocacy while prizing neutral, dispassionate inquiry. And yet, in Egypt, where that inquiry put them face to face with the injustices of the Mubarak government, journalists like Amira felt themselves becoming advocates. 

“There is a thin line between being an activist and a journalist,” she told me. “We consider ourselves independent, but when your independence entails bringing out the truth, and the truth is very, very ugly, and it’s always against the current regime and the status quo, then you’re instantly opposition. So you’re always put in this position, unwillingly maybe, and sometimes unintentionally, of opposing the regime, when in fact what you’re doing is a completely objective portrayal of certain situations. At the same time, when you’re under an autocratic regime, I mean, any kind of- highlighting the truth in any form, it is a form of activism…I think it's obvious that a lot of the independent media supported the revolution.”

But was the opposite true? Were state-owned newspapers all for the regime? “For them it’s not really,” Amira began, interjecting with the qualifying “– and this is a very judgmental statement- I feel like for them it’s not a form of activism. It’s a job.”

“In this context you would look at the independent media as journalists/activists and the state media personnel as someone who just goes to their job and does it in a very routine manner, without thinking of the consequences.”

Amira thinks that it is not always a matter of the particular journalist being politically for the regime, but that the institutions exercise a top-down internal censorship. Reporters for state-owned television stations, for example, would film all of the pre-revolution protests, because it was the news of the day, but their footage would just wind up stored in archives.

She believes there are two kinds of state journalists. One kind "don’t really see that this is a be just kind of regurgitating what the state is saying, whatever orders are coming from the top, and there are others who, even when they are professional and do want to perform their jobs correctly, they’re not able to take it past just being there witnessing it, and its unpredictable whether they get to cover it or not.”

“They have no power,” she concluded, “but at the same time you have to ask what’s keeping you there. So it is kind of a question of integrity.”

If that is the dilemma state journalists face, as Amira sees it, then the dilemma facing independent journalists like herself is more about dealing with the possible repercussions of stories.

“There’s a sense of responsibility you have to think about when you’re covering news like this,” she explained. “In times of instability and turmoil and revolutions you really have to not only report objectively what’s going on, but you also have to think about whether you’re reporting something that’s going to fuel anger to a level that you can’t even imagine.”

“There comes a time when if the news turns out to be not true,” she continued, “you’re not just going to write a correction the next day. You will have caused a lot of ripples that you have no control over.”

As the business editor of a major newspaper in English, Amira works with a particularly delicate set of issues, because publishing sensitive information can, in her words, “move the market.”

“You say something about their chairman being questioned by, for example, the illicit gains authority,” she explained. “Instantly that’s going to have an effect on the company’s stocks, performance on the stock market and their ability maybe to get credit from banks.”

Of course, if the information is true then Amira publishes it. But in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, when the extent of corruption across the corporate layer of the country was coming out, it was harder to know when to publish, and all the different news agencies were competing for who could break stories the fastest.

“The competition was very fierce about who was going to get the news out first…Because if Al Arabiya reported it then Reuters would pick up the news that Al Arabiya reported from an unconfirmed source, and sometimes you had a story that was like Al Arabiya reported something that Al Jazeera said that was being printed by Reuters in our newspaper, for example. So its like your third or fourth unconfirmed source and you’re still propagating to get it out first.”

As a business editor who supports the activists demonstrating at Tahrir, Amira faces this dilemma: One the one hand, she wants to play up the protest movement’s legitimacy, enacting the symbiotic relationship between activists and independent journalists. On the other, she doesn’t want to adversely affect perceptions in the business world that Egypt is a good place to invest. She wants to see investment strengthen the country’s now weak economy.

She feels politically impelled to play up the Tahrir story, the political instability of the moment, in solidarity with efforts to bring about democratic change. For the business world, however, she feels a need to portray stability, and the physical distance between Tahrir from the rest of Egypt, where life proceeds as normal. And so, just like that, we were back to the Silent majority.

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