Yaser Zayat is an Egyptian journalist currently based in the Netherlands, where he runs the Arabic division of the Radio Netherland’s project Huna Sutak (Here is Your Voice).
Before that, in 2011 and 2012, he was the head of the investigative unit for Akher Kalam, a reportage programme aired on private satellite network ONtv. The show was taken off-air earlier this year, amid a clampdown on dissenting voices in Egypt’s media.
Zayat was one of the moderators in the 7th annual ARIJ conference for Arab Investigative reporters – during the conference, Daily News Egypt asked him about the current status of journalism in Egypt.
How do you think the media in Egypt has changed since you left the country?
For the first time, I am not optimistic at all about the future of media in Egypt, and this lack of optimism is built on several factors that I can’t ignore.
An example of this, is the restrictions on many prominent journalists, whether in print, online or broadcast, and the outlets as well, which blocked some of them and expelled others. Those indicators confirm we are reaching a turn in the road that is leading us downwards, bringing us back to the kind of didactic media from the ‘60s era.
The ‘60s media is no longer a fit for today. The people have become more aware and are acquainted with their rights to knowledge. The sources of information have become various and multiple after the emergence of internet worldwide, so it has become difficult to apply conventional media theories on such a rapid changing and competitive landscape.
Authorities will not manage to block information for too long. The audience will use external sources, like international media outlets for example, or citizen journalism, which the authorities cannot control. This also has a downside, because information spread on those platforms is not always professional, which might create confusion in public opinion.
Compared to the transitional period, actually in the last 30 years of Egyptian media history, I believe last year was the worst. During the [Muslim] Brotherhood rule, journalists who were hailed as heroes for exposing facts about [former President Mohamed] Morsi and his regime and contributing to his ouster, are now being labelled as traitors to the nation.
Why don’t you think the current media restrictions you referred to took place back then?
Because the political tide on the street was much stronger than any regime. The Muslim Brotherhood never supported freedom of speech, nor did the SCAF, but they could not control it.
In Morsi’s last speech [as president of Egypt], he said “one year is enough”, which is an indicator for what could have happened next. Also, the security forces during that time assassinated a number of journalists and activists, like Alhusseiny Abu Deif.
I agree with what Safwat Al-Sherif said, we can now say that Mubarak’s was the most prosperous for media freedom in Egypt. Some annoying stuff used to happen but we were still able to talk, at least our lives were not threatened.
How do you review the current challenges encountered by media professionals?
The challenges facing journalists today are existential challenges: to be or not to be. Journalists have to chose between following the regime and justifying its practices, or stepping back from the scene altogether.
We have three types of media professionals now: some who are facing pressures, and trying to live with them, and this is a bad choice in my opinion; the second type are those who try to be flexible and bow down to threats in order to make a living – I can’t blame them on the personal level, but I hold them accountable on a professional and ethical level, because they are helping the regime become more oppressive; the third type is the worst – they are those who practice fraud against the public. I don’t call them journalists but rather the regime’s microphones. They are present in every decade and have no solution, but over time they will be deadbeat.
We have also witnessed some journalists who decided to step back completely from the scene, on the grounds that this is not the right time, like Yosri Fouda, Belal Fadl, and many others.
In your opinion why are those restrictions taking place now?
Those who fear the public scrutiny that is provided by journalists are persons or entities that have something to hide, something that will certainly raise doubts.
If I, as a regime, wanted to practice rational ruling, then I would have nothing to hide. I would be transparent and would let the public know all about my actions. But with all those media restrictions, the regime obviously rejects any form of accountability, which is also a rejection to democracy.
Voting for a president does not give him utter or divine privileges. We need to hold him accountable, like what we did during Morsi’s rule.
During your work in Egypt, did you face any threats?
Never! During the whole period of my work at ONtv for a year and half, I never faced any threats. Except the notorious annoying situations we face sometimes during our work on investigations with some sources.
But we never received any directives or notes from any superior body. Nobody commented on our work or said that it was undermining national security.
In addition, I would like to say that during the last ten years of Mubarak’s rule, I never received any note on any article I wrote or any interview I made on TV, and I was feeling utterly secure.
As an investigative reporter, where do you think the field is headed in Egypt?
It’s certainly a risky field but this is what proves the true mettle of journalists and helps them change the world. Unlike activists, investigative journalists use professional tools to expose facts the regime tends to hide. Consequently, they provide one of the most basic human rights: knowledge. I believe investigative reporting will prosper in the upcoming period, but with increasing risks.
Can you tell us more about your role in Huna Sutak? How do you think it’s useful in today’s rapidly changing media scene?
With our content from multiple locations in six Arab countries, chosen according to the open society indicator for freedoms, we aim to build a platform for talented writers who were not lucky enough to get published.
It’s made for youths between the ages of 15 and 30, and focuses on showcasing their work through multimedia and digital tools.
Some people in government might be annoyed by that, but this gets us back to the point where you can longer control the flow of information in the 21st century. Every mobile holder is a potential journalist. We need to empower these people and redefine their roles. If the regime is going to ban that as well then it might as well shut off the internet and all telecommunications, which of course would be impossible.