As I listened to these young bloggers, I tried to figure out what drives them to take such risks. They have been arrested, beaten up, tortured, even sodomized. Among them was Wael Abbas, who often writes on sensitive topics like corruption or police brutality, and often with strong, firsthand reporting (he has since gone on to win a Human Rights Watch award for his commitment to free speech in the face of repression). Wael is shy, soft-spoken, intense. He leaned forward and said to me, “I want to learn how to be credible. I want people to believe me. I want to know how you journalists work. I want to report news. Facts. No ideology.”
His words caught me. For one thing, they were in stark contrast to the scorn for mainstream journalism and its ways that I hear coming from the U.S. blogosphere. But more important, while there are many places like Egypt where bloggers are eager to broadcast views that challenge their rulers, at this point there are only a few where they are doing the difficult work of actually building a second line of journalism—one that is not for sale and on guard against manipulation, devoted to ferreting out the best obtainable version of the truth.
My inquiries led me to the Middle East News Agency (MENA), Egypt’s state-owned news service and the Arab world’s largest. Competitors among the Gulf Arab news services are coming on strong, and MENA’s bosses are eager to catch up with what they should have been doing years ago. Their online presentation is bare-bones. Tradition has stifled innovation and evolution. The editors asked me to work with the news-feature department. They want short, timely features to go with breaking news. One problem is that the department exists on a different planet. Stories are written by hand, and then entered into a computer by typists. Articles take weeks to complete and are often about movie stars, dead or alive; and, as several veteran feature writers emphasized to me, they write nothing that might stain Egypt’s image.
In early March 2007, I began meeting twice a week with thirteen MENA reporters. Most were veterans, and I quickly sensed their coolness. Later, they would tell me they were not eager to work with an American. But that’s only one problem. After I laid out the kind of approach their editors wanted, several flatly said that the narrative style used by most Western wire services is impossible, that they preferred a more formal style that often segues into a question-and-answer format. Maybe there’s a middle ground, I suggested, and quickly stressed that I was not their teacher, exactly, but their colleague; I was there because I think we share a common bond—our profession. I explained that I hoped to learn from them, and that after years of reporting I, too, felt the need to reflect and grow.
Slowly, after a few sessions, I ceased to be an outsider; the security guards no longer eyed me warily when I entered MENA’s offices in a teeming part of downtown Cairo, which, like many of Egypt’s government buildings, has a regal façade that belies the fact that, but for a handful of exquisite offices for top editors, great swaths of the interior are crumbling from neglect. The rooms where the feature reporters work are dumps. Repairs were under way, but slowly. Life is not easy for Egyptian journalists. Pay is low. Independence is rare. Troublemakers are discouraged. Unpopular reporting can bring libel suits that can land a reporter in jail.