Updated Aug. 31, 2015
When journalists make the news as much as they cover it, something has gone wrong. Lately in Egypt, journalists have been in the headlines with disturbing regularity.
On Saturday two Al Jazeera journalists, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian cameraman Baher Mohamed, were again sent to prison after being retried on charges of broadcasting false news. The two, who had spent more than 400 days in prison, were widely expected to be cleared of charges. Instead, they received a 3-year sentence. Mohamed received an extra six months for possession of a spent bullet casing.
Unfortunately the two are not alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists says Egypt remains one of the world’s leading jailers of media workers (22 at last count, up from 12 in March).
Celebrated blogger Alla Abd El Fattah in February received a five-year sentence for what prosecutors called illegal protest. Reporters covering mass protests in Cairo this January were questioned and detained; one was handed over to pro-government demonstrators, who dragged her to the ground, punched and slapped her, she reported. The crackdown came days after President Albdel Fattah Al-Sisi promised to release several jailed journalists.
It was also Cairo in 2011 where 60 Minutes reporter Laura Logan was gang raped by a crowd of protestors while covering the Arab Springs uprising.
Except for a brief hiatus after the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, journalists in Egypt have had negligible media freedom. For years, they have faced harassment and obstructionism when reporting. Their stories can be weighty, such as the killing of 20 protesters at the rallies in January. Or, as I know well, the topics can be politically benign — like whether garbage pickers outside of Cairo have any legal claim to land on which they are squatting.
That’s the question I asked a government information agent in the late ’90s while reporting on housing issues for a U.S. nonprofit organization. My husband, photographer Doral Chenoweth, and I had spent days in Moatamdia, a settlement of Coptic Christians known as the Zabbaleen, or “garbage people.”
Cairo had no state-run garbage collection, so the Zabbaleen scraped a living gathering refuse from residents, hotels and Nile River-cruise companies. Theirs was a remarkably efficient enterprise: Almost 80 percent of the waste they collected was repurposed. The riverboats’ food scraps were fed to pigs. Cartloads of plastic bottles and paper were bundled into massive cubes and sent to recycling plants.
But Moatamdia was a slum. Fetid trash drew swarms of flies. Mothers suspended their babies in hammocks so the rats wouldn’t chew off their fingers. The stench was stifling. The Zabbaleen needed new houses, built on stilts to get them out of the muck. But theirs was a squatter settlement, and the government was slow to approve land grants.
So I called to inquire. I gave the information agent my hotel phone number and went back to Moatamdia. When we returned hours later, a maid paced outside our room. She spoke almost no English.
“Police, here!” she insisted. The room was empty, everything in its place. We called our local contact, who translated the alarmed maid’s story.
The police had searched our room, photographed my notes, opened my computer and possibly copied files. The phone likely was tapped. For the next few days we were tailed by a man we dubbed Faurak, a chain-smoker who dawdled outside restaurants as we dined. We ducked out side doors to elude him. He always caught up.
The nonprofit director said we were putting his project at risk. I was asked to not write about the Zabbaleen. I haven’t until now.
We were reporting on substandard living conditions of a marginalized people. Today’s Egyptian journalists cover a nation divided, police and their opposition opening fire on fleeing crowds. Journalists such as Mayada Ashraf, who died last March, sometimes get caught in the fray. Seven journalists have died covering protests since the military’s July 2013 removal of elected President Mohamed Morsi.
“Instead of releasing journalists, the government of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is continuing its efforts to intimidate and threaten those who are covering events of public interest in Egypt,” said Sherif Mansour of CPJ.
On World Press Freedom Day, Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab declared, “Egypt respects its writers. No pen was, or will, be broken because Egypt is where journalism began in the world.”
Yet prosecutors continue to place gag orders on the media. Photojournalists, with cameras poised, get singled out and shot. Media owners themselves regularly pull stories that criticize the police, the government and the president.
Its fleeting post-revolutionary days gave Egypt something it never had in its 5,000 years: An unfettered press, armed with cellphone cameras, social media and a public that wants to follow along. Journalists are being intimated, but the world sees the intimidation. The outcry at the verdict against Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed has been loud and will be sustained. Now more than ever, there’s no going back.