The Hunger

Egypt's bloggers want to be journalists
August 5, 2008

Sandmonkey was determined to quit his blog. Sniping away at life and politics in Egypt had become too risky, he said, even under the cover of his anonymous online moniker. Too much of a chance the government thugs would hurt him or someone close to him, or smash his computer equipment. He wasn’t alone in his worry. The dozen or so bloggers who had gathered in the offices of a fledgling Cairo newspaper were freaked out by the four-year prison term given to a twenty-two-year-old former law school student for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and for “religious incitement.” The blogger had called Mubarak “the symbol of tyranny” and said Muslims who attacked a Coptic Christian church had “revealed their true ugly face.” He had blasted Al-Azhar University, a revered center of Islamic learning, as “the other face of the coin of al Qaeda.” Some of the bloggers in the room disagreed with what he had written, but they didn’t expect a prison term. The muscular guy in a black T-shirt sitting beside me said that the authorities had already done all they can do to him, so he wasn’t worried. He said he would keep blogging, writing what he wants, showing up at dissident rallies. I was tempted to ask for specifics about what he had endured, but decided it was best that I didn’t.

I was in Cairo on a Knight fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, on leave from the Chicago Tribune, where I cover labor after years of roaming back and forth to the Middle East. I earned my first Middle Eastern credentials covering the Lebanon war in 1982, and my Arabic is still pretty good. The Washington-based center sends people like me around the world to help independent-minded journalists make a difference in their countries. But shortly after I arrived in Cairo in late February 2007, the two main projects that I had planned to work with were swept aside in a swirl of dead-handed bureaucracy and delayed decisions. No surprise; it’s the Middle East. But with just over four months remaining in my fellowship, I needed to find another way to contribute. It felt like I was back forty years in the Peace Corps in Turkey—things don’t work out, so you move on.

I began calling newspaper friends who suggested people and organizations I might be able to assist, and right away an Egyptian reporter who was struggling to establish an independent news network connected me with the bloggers. I found them at an existential moment. They are testing the limits of their freedom in a time of great intellectual, economic, and political ferment in Egypt. Some Egyptian journalists told me with absolute certainty that change is coming for their news media, and that it can’t be stopped. It is true that small newspapers are bubbling up to challenge the state-run media; satellite TV from the wider Arab world has forced Egyptian TV to get real and copy Al Jazeera’s model; Egyptian journalists are talking to other Arab journalists about what binds them and about strategies for the future; government newspapers, in the face of declining circulation, finally seem to realize that they must compete; and the Internet—as it has in repressive societies everywhere—has opened the world to Egyptians and given them the power to speak out.

Until only a few years ago, the major players in Egypt’s print media were the government press, which mostly behaves like the regime’s loudspeaker, and the opposition press, for which facts are often considered fungible. Then in 2004, Al Masry al Youm entered the arena with investigative articles and rigorous, fact-driven reporting. Egypt had never seen anything like this aggressive, privately funded newspaper, and it took off financially and critically, particularly among young, middle-income Egyptians who welcomed its strong voice and appreciated the relevant information it delivers. The success of Al Masry al Youm emboldened others to launch independent media projects. In response, not surprisingly, the government and its supporters cracked down, hassling print, broadcast, and digital media operations with legal challenges and mindless secrecy, fostering the self-crippling fear that you will get slapped by the government—or even your boss—if you cross any red lines.

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.

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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.

Several weeks into our class, an older feature writer volunteered that she liked the story structure I was teaching—feature leads that wind back to a signature ending—and had begun using it. Others agreed, among them Khaled Mohammed Mustafa, a middle-aged reporter who wore fashionable ascots and modestly noted that he had dated movie stars. But writing about famous people was not his passion. His heart is in the occult, and he hosts a show about it for a Gulf television station that often begins with him stepping out of a coffin in a creepy graveyard. One day, he showed up to class with a balding, elfin man. Khaled introduced him as a medium who had come to commune with any spirits who may reside in our offices. As the medium explained his exceptional powers, the class came alive. Some grumbled that he was spewing blasphemy, but most were fascinated, and they grilled him. Everything that I had been teaching about interviewing came together—the questions were aggressive, but still polite. When the medium left, we discussed the interview and how to put the story into a larger context—in this case, the role of mystical beliefs in Egyptians’ daily lives—while keeping the format short and readable. It was one of our best sessions, and I thanked the spirits on the way home.

By June, our sessions were finished, but I agreed to work further with two interns in their late twenties, Mohammad and Shaimaa, on a long feature article. The editors wanted us to tackle a topic that would appeal to Gulf clients, and we decided to explore ways to spend a $10 billion fund that had been set up recently by Sheik Mohammed bin al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Dubai. The sheik had said that he wanted the fund to support “knowledge development” in the Arab world, and that he particularly deplored the state of education for Arab women. Mohammad and Shaimaa decided to focus on female literacy, and the subject required quite a leap in reporting for them. Neither had ever conducted an interview that wasn’t arranged ahead of time, nor done any street reporting. They found women at a literacy program in a distant and poor neighborhood of Cairo, a place they told me they rarely visit. They talked with public-policy experts who say money from the fund should not be disseminated by government agencies because it would surely be siphoned off for other things. They interviewed critics of Arab governments’ lack of support for women in general. The story had details, quotes, and a literary arc that Mohammad and Shaimaa had never attempted before. Three weeks after we began the reporting, we sat down to edit the first draft, and Mohammad told me that this experience had convinced him that he can make a career of journalism. Though shy, Shaimaa made the same point. They worked overtime to finish so we could tackle another story, but my time was running out. I was not around when the piece went out on the newswire, but their editor told me she was pleased that they took on such an important and sensitive topic.

Islam online called. The editors there had heard about my work and the work of my colleague in Cairo, Craig Duff, a contributing videographer to The New York Times, who was teaching videography to students and working journalists via the International Center for Journalists. They asked if we would help train their people. Islam Online, which publishes in Arabic and in English, is one of a slew of Islam-oriented online news operations, but also one of the largest online news sources in the Middle East. It has a large footprint outside the Arab world, too, and its English-language report brings some 40 percent of its traffic. I learned that its funding comes from wealthy Gulf Arabs and that the Egyptian-born Sheik Yusuf Qardawi is its spiritual leader. Among Islam-oriented Web operations, it is considered moderate—but I was wary. I read some of the fatwas that Islam Online had published on its prayer service and decided that they would curl a parakeet’s feathers. I told the editors I won’t help anyone who promotes extremism and violence. They insisted that they believe in moderation and that they intended to weed out the hard-line fatwas, which, in fairness, had been written several years ago. I was still doubtful.

But Craig and I agreed to do it, figuring we could at least nurture the more moderate tendencies in their newsroom. Over the next few weeks, I met separately with the English- and Arabic-language staffs. I tackled the issue of the site’s news values indirectly, stressing that in order for Islam Online to grow, its product had to be professional. That meant intellectual honesty, a sense of fairness, details, and solid sourcing. This would help readers to trust them, I said. Nobody disagreed. Soon, I began to notice that much of the time they agreed when I said certain articles needed more background, more sources, and to be more even-handed.

Still, their stories had an Arab-world slant and conservative Islamic spin. Stories about anti-Muslim prejudice in the West got prominent play. So, too, did any news about Saudi Arabia. The peg was often the Arab world on the defensive. That’s their right, of course, but it doesn’t always produce the honest journalism that the Arab world needs. Islam Online’s editors will have to decide what they want, ultimately. I hope the tug of competition will gradually convince them that good journalism—not journalism in service of a cause—is their best bet, both commercially and in terms of helping their society.

On the top floor of a soot-covered Art Deco era building in downtown Cairo, where the elevators only sometimes work, El Badeel (The Alternative) was being born. Like other newspapers, it needed a license; the government had stalled that for months, and the delay was draining away the money raised for this new newspaper. But the editors were not giving up. With less financial support than Al Masry al Youm, El Badeel wanted to do the same kind of work but from a left-of-center perspective. The plan was for analysis, people-oriented features, and consumer and investigative reporting.

Mohammed Sayed Said, a longtime source and friend, accepted my offer to work with his staff, and I came to El Badeel in March, four months before its first issue was published. After years of writing for Al Ahram, the government’s principal newspaper, Mohammed had taken the job of El Badeel’s editor only a few months earlier—no small risk in a country where career mistakes can be terminal. Soft-spoken, middle-aged, and professorial, Mohammed is a particular kind of Egyptian intellectual. When he speaks in classical Arabic, the language sparkles. Egyptians like him are democratic reformers, believers in the need, and the ability, to reinvigorate their politically moribund society. They don’t carry the baggage of the Nasserites or other outdated Arab nationalist ideologies. They float on their own, borrowing what they like from East and West.

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.

Since returning to Chicago last July, I’ve remained impressed by the hunger I witnessed in these young Egyptian bloggers and reporters to learn the hard work of journalism. They, and their counterparts around the Arab world, are not perfect. Their passions and sense of injustice may be so strong that they cannot stop themselves from sometimes crossing the line from witness to advocate. But their fervent belief in truth-telling and fact-based reporting is encouraging, and it propels them, sometimes like moths to a flame. As I follow developments in Egypt, I am heartened—but more than a little worried—by the work my friends and colleagues there are producing.

Wael’s Internet fame (and infamy) grew, for instance, after he posted videos of people being tortured by police. One, showing a bus driver being sodomized by officers, led to a three-year prison term for the officers. Yet, while other bloggers have been beaten or jailed, Wael thus far has faced only nasty rumors meant to discredit him.

Elsewhere, the bloggers and other independent media outlets have covered the on-again, off-again wave of labor strikes that have wracked Egypt since 2006 with a fearlessness and tenacity that put the establishment media’s thin and cautious coverage to shame. The unrest, which is now the longest and largest social upheaval in Egypt since World War II, and has pulled in everyone from factory workers to government employees, is driven by widespread layoffs, shrinking wages, and rising inflation—especially in the cost of food—at a time when wealthy Egyptians seem to be flourishing. The government crackdown on the weak political opposition and labor-union activists only fueled the strikes. Police reportedly seized a number of bloggers in April during demonstrations, and the government newspapers have been drumming up anger toward the bloggers, blaming the unrest on them.

From its first issue in July 2007, El Badeel’s investigations into the labor unrest have established it as a serious player in the Egyptian media market. It broke the story of how police had chained injured citizens arrested at a riot to their hospital beds. One day, its first three pages were given over to pictures of ordinary Egyptians caught up in the disputes, a visual landmark for Egyptian newspapers.

In May, a reporter in Cairo e-mailed me, asking for guidance on how to cover the strikes. And, after a short intermission, Sandmonkey is blogging again.

Stephen Franklin is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Bulletin, the Miami Herald, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he has trained journalists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and Pakistan. He is currently the ethnic and community media director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, a nonprofit organization that helps Chicago’s diverse communities and nonprofit organizations tell their stories. He is working on a book about his longtime bond with the Middle East, Captured by the Light.