Egypt's journalists: A life on the edge

Marina Barsoum , Thursday 24 Apr 2014

With a rising crackdown on journalists in Egypt, media institutions and the Press Syndicate are taking the available measures to protect journalists in the field, but what of the government's role?

Journalists Protesting
Egyptian journalist carrying a sign that reads "No to targeting journalists" during a protest at the Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo, Thursday April 17, 2014 (Photo: Bassam El-Zogby)

"It was carelessness and nonchalance that killed our beloved Mayada, not the gunshots," said photographer Amr Nabil, himself injured in 2005 during his coverage of Mubarak-era elections.

Mayada Ashraf, 22-year-old journalist from Al-Dostour newspaper, was reported dead in March while covering clashes between police and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in eastern Cairo's Ain Shams district.

Dozens of Egyptian journalists protested last week against the recent violence they are regularly targeted with while covering events in the field, as well as what they say is a systematic campaign to prevent them from doing their jobs.

The protest, called by the Press Syndicate and held at its headquarters in downtown Cairo, condemned the "deliberate attacks journalists are subjected to and the fierce campaign aiming to prevent them from … reporting the truth to the people," the syndicate said in an earlier statement.

Joined by syndicate head Diaa Rashwan, the journalists held their pens high while shouting anti-police slogans and carried symbolic blood-stained shrouds in condemnation of what they say is a rising crackdown on journalists covering live events. 

Ahram Online spoke to concerned parties of the measures in place to ensure some degree of safety for field journalists and of the steps that remain as yet untaken

Facts and figures 

According to a December 2013 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least six reporters were killed that same year, placing Egypt third on the list of "deadliest places" for journalists after Syria and Iraq.

Ashraf's death on 28 March marks the first journalist reported killed in 2014.

The recent crackdown on photographers and reporters, however, is not a new hazard they have come to face. In fact, journalists have been subjected to violence since the days of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

"During the 2005 parliamentary elections, I was covering a governorate where conflicts between the ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood were rife," Nabil recounted to Ahram Online. "I was about to leave after taking all the necessary pictures when, suddenly, security personnel began dispersing everyone by firing gunshots. This was the moment I forever lost my right eye."

The news agency he works with, he added, provided all the required health care for his treatment.

Photojournalist Ahmed Seidawy, who works with the local Al-Gomhouriya newspaper, described how he too was injured during his coverage of the 2011 uprising.

“On 29 January, I was told to cover clashes in Tahrir Square and in front of the Ministry of Interior. A gunshot hit my right eye while I did my job and I lost my eyesight since,” Seidawy remembered, also stressing that the newspaper offered him all possible insurance and medical help.

The photojournalist lamented that the way reporters and photographers are targeted while covering live events almost seems like a punishment, as if they were being stopped from committing a crime.

"Photographers are mostly targeted nowadays; if not by security forces, then by 'honourable citizens' [as authorities label citizens who endorse their policies]," the journalist said.

Another incident took place last week, when two reporters from privately owned media outlets were covering live clashes between security forces and Morsi supporters in front of Cairo University.

Shaimaa Aboul-Kheir, adviser to the CPJ International Committee, told Ahram Online that, with 12 journalists killed since the 2011 uprising, the situation is in fact deteriorating.

“The number of young Egyptian journalists killed and injured while conducting field coverage is on the rise, and no party has taken any serious action to curb these deadly attacks,” she said.

Efforts by media insitutions and the Press Syndicate 

Press Syndicate Secretary-General Karem Mahmoud told Ahram Online that the interior ministry has agreed to dispatch 100 helmets and bulletproof vests to the syndicate, with the first batch of 30 expected within the week. 

"The syndicate has also sent a request to the Ministry of Defence demanding a supply of protective gear such as gas masks, helmets and bulletproof vests,” Mahmoud said, adding that though the ministry welcomed the request, no action has yet been taken. 

Mahmoud also informed Ahram Online of an initiative, sparked by the death of young reporter Mayada Ashraf, to train journalists for field coverage.

"The training is open for all journalists, freelancers and photojournalists. All they must do to obtain permission to attend is certify that they work for a media outlet," said Mahmoud.

The secretary-general also highlighted the soon-to-be-announced reopening of candidacies to Press Syndicate affiliation for journalists who are not officially appointed at their institutions. 

"This is an attempt by the syndicate to protect non-appointed journalists who engage in field reporting, since they do not benefit from any form of insurance coverage," he said, adding that the syndicate is yet to set affiliation criteria.

Meanwhile, syndicate legal adviser Sayed Abou Zeid told Ahram Online that legal investigations are underway in all the violence and abuse cases that have befallen Egyptian journalists.

"The number of law suits filed daily by journalists against the violations they face while reporting in the field is increasing," the lawyer said. 

Having said that, Mahmoud and Abou Zeid both agree that it is the media institutions' responsibility to carefully select the journalists who cover clashes. 

Nabil agrees, stating that journalists like Mayada, as yet untrained and inexperienced, should not be requested by their institutions to conduct field reporting in hazardous circumstances.

Khaled Salah, editor-in-chief of the local daily Youm7 newspaper ordered last week the appointment of all journalists who cover field events in order to offer them full insurance.

Salah also addressed a speech to all other local media entities urging them to appoint every reporter who covers events from the field. 

Suggestions by the CPJ

Aboul-Kheir believes the government and media institutions must play a crucial role in putting an end to the risks of violence regularly faced by journalists in Egypt.

Security forces, she elaborated, must be officially trained to respectfully treat journalists – an initiative, Aboul-Kheir believes, that should be undertaken by Egypt's cabinet and presidency. 

Additionally, "The presidency should issue a law or decree banning all forms of violations against journalists," she stated to Ahram Online, adding that the unauthorised detention of journalists must similarly be banned. 

"All those working as freelancer, journalists or photojournalists should also initiate rights groups in order to demand the rights of those who are not officially appointed at the institutions they work with," Aboul-Kheir concluded.

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