On 8 March, I was in London attending a panel discussion on the safety of women journalists. I had been invited there by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) after contributing a chapter to a book published earlier this year by the INSI on the safety of female journalists working in conflict and danger zones. Titled No Woman’s Land, the book is a compilation of thirty stories written by veteran women journalists from 12 countries.
All of the contributing journalists had, at some point in their career, worked in conflict areas, covering wars or civil unrest. They describe the perils and challenges they faced as well as the impact, emotional or physical, the experience had on their lives. Besides the compelling stories of these brave women, the book also offers advice and guidance for journalists who at times risk their lives to tell the story.
Memories of the book launch at Canary Wharf in London and the panel debate on the same topic flashed across my mind when I heard the tragic news earlier this week of the death of yet another journalist in Syria. According to media reports, 34 year old filmmaker and journalist Tamer el Awam was killed on the front line in Aleppo on Saturday while filming the bombardment of civilian neighborhoods in the ongoing war between the Syrian regime and opposition forces. El Awam had been living in Germany but had decided to return to his native Syria to join other media activists in telling the world about the rebellion there. Little did he know then that he was soon to become another statistic. And if he had known, would he still have gone?
Before his death, he had however managed to share some of his haunting experiences with millions around the world through his short documentary, Memories at a Checkpoint, which reveals harrowing details of the day to day suffering of Syrian civilians under the oppressive regime. There were several moments during the film when El Awam himself came close to death, when the rebels he was accompanying came under fire or when a nearby building was bombed, but El Awam failed to see the incidents as a possible ‘death omen’ or warning signs of worse to come.
In February, 43 year old New York Times reporter Anthony Shedid also died while reporting in eastern Syria. Unlike El Awam who died of a bullet wound, the award- winning Shadid’s death was caused by an asthma attack. Nevertheless, he too had exposed himself to grave danger when he traveled to Syria to bring us the story. According to the New York Times, he had been riding on horseback and his asthma attack may have been triggered by the animals. A month after his death, I attended a memorial tribute for Shadid at the Harvard Bookstore in Boston. The sad look on the face of his widow, who was flanked by tearful friends and Shadid’s two toddlers, continues to haunt me.
The names of both Shadid and El Awam are now on a growing list of journalists and media workers killed in Syria since the start of the revolt in March 2011. The Syrian Journalists Association reports 69 deaths among journalists and media workers covering the fighting in Syria over the past year and a half. Activists say the Syrian regime continues to target both citizen and traditional journalists, nationals and foreigners, in violation of the freedom of information law, turning a blind eye to a barrage of criticism and condemnations by international rights groups.
While the situation in Syria may be more dangerous for journalists than it is in many other countries, Syria is by no means the only country where reporters’ lives are under serious threat as they try to bring news to the public. While journalists have for decades continued to face arrests, detention, assaults, torture and death, and scores have mysteriously disappeared without a trace (as happened with Al Ahram Deputy Editor in Chief Reda Hilal during the Mubarak era), the issue of “safety of journalists” was brought to the public’s attention and gained added significance with the news of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in Moscow in October2006.
Her death remains an unresolved mystery to this day but it has helped draw international attention to the challenges faced by journalists reporting the news. In a September 2009 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York- based, non-profit organisation dedicated to defending press freedom cited Russia as one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and the worst at solving their murders.
According to a “press freedom barometer” on the Reporters Without Borders website, 68 journalists have been killed worldwide this year alone, among them 29 citizen journalists or bloggers. A further 278 are behind bars,128 of them “netizens.”
Despite the “freer” media atmosphere that has prevailed in Egypt since last year’s mass uprising, the press situation is still cause for concern. In the last eighteen months, local and foreign journalists covering protests have been assaulted by security forces, arrested and detained. Some have faced military trials during the transitional period when the country was under military control. I remember visiting blogger Maikel Nabil in prison on his 43rd day of hunger strike which coincided with his 26th birthday.
He was protesting his detention on charges of “defaming and insulting the military” in a blog post. Nabil was sentenced to three years in prison by a military court but was released ten months after his arrest. He could have died in his solitary, dark prison cell. Fortunately, he survived the ordeal. In the Reporters Without Borders 2011-2012 report ,Egypt fell 39 places to rank 166th because “the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] dashed the hopes of pro-democracy activists by continuing the repressive practices of the former regime,” according to the report (which describes three periods of exceptional violence for journalists: in February, November and December 2011).
While both male and female journalists have been subjected to assaults, Egypt’s regression in the press freedom index can be mainly attributed to sexual assaults on female journalists since the January 2011 uprising, starting with the mob attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square on 11 February 2011. Logan has written the foreword to the book I mentioned earlier No Woman’s Land recounting in detail the horrors she faced the night she was sexually assaulted. She wrote that it was because of her job as a journalist that she was attacked: “That ancient tactic of terrifying people into submission.” Since the Logan incident, several female reporters have faced similar assaults while covering protests in Egypt.
I too, as a journalist, have been subjected to intimidation and threats a number of times for my reporting under both the military and the Mubarak regimes. In May 2011, after I broke the story on “virginity checks” performed by the military on female protesters in Tahrir, I received death threats on my cell phone and on Facebook. Meanwhile, eight local websites falsely reported that I was facing investigation by a military tribunal.
The reports were meant to intimidate and scare me into silence, CPJ’s Mohamed Mostagir later told me. I had received similar threats under Mubarak for a 2006 story on the ruthless massacre by the former regime’s security forces of Sudanese refugees who had staged a sit-in outside the offices of the UNHCR. While admittedly, the threats did scare me, they have failed to silence me. I’m hoping that the new government will not resort to the old dictatorial tactics to silence free voices.
Recent assaults reported by some journalists outside the Media Production City do not auger well for the future of press freedom in the “new” Egypt. The suspension of the independent Al Fara’een channel for a month for allegedly “inciting the murder of the president” and the confiscation of a Saturday edition of the privately owned Al Dostor in recent weeks have fuelled concerns about renewed crackdowns on the media.
I certainly welcome the news of the formation of a new “Media Council” in the near future to replace the decadent Ministry of Information. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether state media will again become a mouthpiece for the ruling authority. I’m hoping the new Islamist minister of information will decide to break away from past traditions. I also hope he realises that a free media is vital for a viable democracy.