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I’m not a journalist – but the least I can do is salute them


Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

“One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feelings and give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable elements; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.”
Mahatma Ghandi

I’m not a journalist. My father was a journalist, on and off, for around two decades. As a child, I spent time wandering in and out of the pressroom. I remember the first time I saw an Apple Mac computer: it was a massive clunky thing that was used solely because it was easier to do spread sheets on in the pressroom.

But I’m not a journalist. I write analyses, and I pen commentary. The irony at the moment is that many who used to write commentary and analyses no longer do. They feel dejected: they invested their hearts and souls into the Egyptian revolution, and have seen it been used and abused so many times in the past three years. So, they’ve decided to give themselves a well-earned (and for many of them, it is definitely very well earned) break.

But they’re not journalists either. You see, journalists don’t really get to have those breaks. They just keep at it. I’ve been trying to convince several of the best journalists I know in Cairo to take a holiday, and just disconnect from the story – if only to recharge their batteries. They can’t. They get to the point of looking through flights and almost, almost pressing the “book” button online. Then, they stop, and think, “But what if something happens?” They have to be witnesses. That’s their job.

It’s not my job. I have a constant running argument with one journalist I know in Cairo who insists on taking risks in order to get the story covered. Each time I shout at her on the phone to take better care of herself (which, in my world, means staying home), she meekly responds, “But, it’s my job.” I retort, “I don’t care” – because my job, as her friend, is to be concerned about her wellbeing. I’m not a journalist.

Some of my journalist friends are far better off than others – but they’re all in a vulnerable state. Some of them work for TV networks that do not really care about their well being and put them in the most vulnerable of positions, while they sit hundreds and thousands of miles away. Some of them work for other networks that provide them with the gold standard in safety and protection. But they all work in the knowledge that, actually, they might all go out one day to do their jobs, and be injured – or worse. I don’t work in that frame of mind. I’m not a journalist.

I’m not a journalist, so I don’t have to suffer the incessant squeals of bantam trolls and little sprites that argue on social media, “It’s time for you journalists to leave Cairo”. The “War on Terror” narrative, it seems, brings out the worst in people – and the best in them too. The worst decide to try to make xenophobia somehow respectable, and remind us of the old adage that “nationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. The best of them remind us that a nation’s values are never more put to the test than when the nation is under pressure. One of those values is the freedom to report, without the fear of imprisonment, harassment or insecurity. There are none who feel the effects of that freedom being curtailed than journalists. But I’m not a journalist.

I’m not a journalist – so I don’t have the same sort of instinctive reflex reaction when I see the poor, shabby, utterly unethical attempts at journalism being promoted. Professional journalists see the likes of half-truths, promoting fascism or some sort of partisan neo-religious bigotry being passed off as journalism, and get angry. Their anger is not just for themselves, as such work inevitably brings disrepute to their vocation and their calling – it is for the public, who invariably begin to treat such diatribes as even partially authentic. The public has a right to know the truth – and when pseudo-reportage takes that right, and abuses it to spew an agenda, it has consequences that are now only all too clear.

I’m not a journalist, so I don’t wake up in the morning and wonder, “Am I next? Am I the one who will be put on some list that will describe me as somehow an accomplice to terrorism or treason? Am I the one who will have ‘evidence’ shown against me on some talk show, like Peter Greste and Mohammed Fadel Fahmy, and the ‘evidence’ will be my notepad, camera and laptop? Am I the one whose crime will be, actually, just trying to find out the truth, and show it to the public? Am I the one who will be imprisoned and detained for news-related offences, even though under the new constitution, that’s supposed to be illegal?” But I’m not a journalist.

I’m not a journalist. I don’t walk into my place of work and think, “So, how long do we have left, before they shut us down? How long is it before some spurious accusation is made against us, and in the course of ‘investigating’ us, we’re shut down? Do we have weeks? Months? Or will it just come out of nowhere?” I’m not a journalist, so I probably wouldn’t answer those questions with a cheerful but defiant demeanour. But journalists do: “Yeah, they’ll probably close us down at some point. Oh well. As for us, most of us love the place, and we love the job. We manage to get by, even though we suspect that at some point it will soon be over.”

I don’t have that spirit that I see in the faces of those that work at places like Mada Masr or Daily News Egypt. It’s a spirit that, to this day, demands on being true to the calling of their vocation – to speak truth to power, and be respectful of the public’s right to know what happens in their country.

I’m not a journalist. But the least I can do is salute them, stand by them, applaud them, and give them whatever support I can. The very least all of us can do is precisely that. Otherwise, it’s not their loss – it’s our loss, and our shame.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .

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