Most of El Badeel’s reporters were young and inexperienced. I had to explain to the business reporters what a stock market is. I reminded the feature writers that not all stories should be heartbreaking tales of oppression. Life has its joys, too, I suggested. But the investigative reporters stunned me. For every reporting scenario I offered, they had strategies for getting the necessary information. Basic facts are as guarded there as Egypt’s ancient treasures, yet that didn’t dissuade them. I wondered where this drive came from. A few had attended investigative workshops put on by Western journalists, some have read about investigative reporting online, and some, I decided, were just eager to learn.
Other opportunities to teach cropped up and I was busy, but the bloggers remained my obsession. Their potential to open up the streams of news is great, not just in Egypt, but across the Arab world. I attended their meetings at various locations around Cairo, where they train one another on the latest technology but mostly fret about the government’s growing dislike of them. I had not forgotten Wael Abbas’s comment that first day about wanting to “know how journalists work,” and, after my time training all these journalists around Cairo, it was clear what I could do for Wael and the other bloggers: write a guide, with their help, that began to set some standards and best practices for online journalism in the Arab world.
It was April 2007 when I began searching for people in Cairo who were interested in advancing online journalism and found Gamal Eid, an overworked lawyer who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the only human-rights group in the Arab world dedicated to freedom of expression. His office, which he shares with a handful of co-workers, is a string of modest rooms in a Cairo suburb. Eid’s resources are few, but his ambition is great, and he liked my idea of creating a bloggers’ guide. We made a deal. Once I’d cooked up the guide, he would provide a translator for the final draft and help disseminate it.
It took me several weeks to put it together. I interviewed bloggers, the human-rights groups that defend them, and others with ideas about how to grow the Internet in the Arab world. I learned that the bloggers wanted to know how to build a story out of facts, and make sure they are as accurate as possible. I skipped the objectivity issue, knowing that today’s reporters here and elsewhere want their own voice. But I urged them to be fair and professional and open to ideas that contradict and challenge their own. They were especially interested in knowing the basics of sedition and other laws that can snare them. Because so many bloggers work in solitude, they wanted advice on how to create a community for support and protection. They also wanted help thinking through the pros and cons of blogging anonymously. And with all the problems they are likely to face, I reminded them that when we speak up, there is no longer silence, and we are not alone.
With Eid’s help, the guide was copied on discs that we gave to those who don’t dare work in an Internet café for fear of being arrested or otherwise hassled by government authorities. He also printed copies for workshops run by his organization and posted the guide on the network’s Web site, immediately reaching over 140 Arab human-rights groups.
The first day it went up, I received e-mails from across the Arab world, congratulating me and asking for further advice. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, which links human-rights groups across the globe, asked to post the guide on its Web site. Other human-rights and journalism groups followed. My host, The International Center for Journalists, put it online in Farsi, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as in English and Arabic. Not bad.