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Front-line stories from the Arab Spring

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Front-line stories from the Arab Spring

Both women, former frontline correspondents who informed the world about the recent political upheavals in the Arab world, recount their experiences to a gathering of World Editors Forum guests Saturday morning.

Shahira Amin is the first to take to the floor. She joined Nile TV, the Egyptian state-run channel, in 1989 and quit on 2 February this year, a day also known as “the battle of the camels.” Why abandon such a long and fruitful career that made her one of Egypt’s top television journalists? According to many western media organisations, it was because “she suddenly had a conscience." Amin dispels that myth.

Nile TV broadcasts in English, meaning there is a much higher freedom ceiling for the channel. Mubarak wanted to give a “semblance of democracy in free speech,” according to Amin. Thus, she declared, “I never changed my tone. I would say: ‘Well done Mrs Mubarak, you just opened a school for girls. Shame on you Mubarak for killing Sudanese refugees.”

Amin was out of the country when the Egyptian political situation reached critical mass, so she and many other journalists signed a petition and handed it to the EU to put pressure on Mubarak to allow freedom of expression. She returned to her country, but getting a feel of the situation on the ground was made significantly more difficult by the curfew in place and the precarious security situation, with “criminals on the loose and no police on the streets.”

Once on the ground, Amin could clearly see that the uprisings were part of an “all-inclusive people’s movement.” That was not the way Nile TV described the situation. The station called the protestors “foreign agents, criminals and hired thugs.” Amin was told by her superiors not to cover Tahir, but she was expected to continue reading the news. She was asked to go on air just after she saw the horse-mounted police attack protesters, which she described as “like a scene from medieval times.” Nile TV forbade her to refer to the event: “We had clear instructions not to mention it.”

Amin was no stranger to controversy at work: “They were used to me getting out of line a bit. I like to challenge authority.” However, when she refused to cover pro-Mubarak demonstrations instead of Tahir, it was clear that the rift between herself and the channel was growing impossibly large. Her position was untenable.

At the time, Amin thought reading the press releases handed to the station by the Interior Ministry would constitute a betrayal of the young activists who were risking their lives in the streets for “things we all believe in”: democracy and free speech. Amin bluntly tells today’s small gathering: “I’m 52; my job is a small price to pay.”

Once the mobile phone network had been restored, Amin’s legs led her towards Tahir Square. She sent a message to her boss that read: “Forgive me, I am never coming back – I’m with the people.” She waited to read the delivery notice. The relief was palpable. Finally, she was free to stay at Tahir and join the Egyptian people in protesting.
 
Hoda Abdel-HamidHoda Abdel-Hamid’s account of her experiences of the same period showed equal journalistic integrity. She arrived in Egypt on the day of “the battle of the camels” and was met by “guys in trucks” shouting and chanting and looking as if they were “probably going to give someone a beating.”

The Hilton hotel was the planned location for a rendezvous with her colleagues, but she received a call telling her not to come because the hotel was surrounded. She dropped her case and, taking only her passport and mobile phone, headed for Tahir.

Initially, Abdel-Hamid didn’t realise protesters were being attacked by pro-Mubarak forces. It was “quite a surreal scene,” like something from “folklore," she tells the World Editors Forum.

Al Jazeera was initially derided by the state as being without credibility. “We were the sinners of all sinners,” Abdel-Hamid says. For a while she had to be a “nameless, faceless correspondent” in order to keep her location and identity hidden, which would enable her to continue reporting.

Abdel-Hamid tells the conference that during one of her reports, a military helicopter was circling above her whilst she was on rooftop with a camera woman. A secret service agent spied the pair and asked what channel she was working for.

“AJE,” she replied.

The soldier asked, “So not Al Jazeera, then?”

“No.”

Once the man had left them in peace, the camera woman told Abdel-Hamid, “I can’t believe you just lied so bluntly.” It wouldn’t be the last time.
 
For instance, when she encounters what she described as “some big guys”, looking “nervous,” agitated, and possibly “high," who told her that she had no place being in the streets with the protesters, she avoided trouble by telling them, “I’m coming to see what’s happening because I don’t trust the media.”
 
Abdel-Hamid’s exploits don’t end there. She and her Moldovan camera woman – a “very gutsy young lady” – crossed the border into Libya despite knowing very little about the country. She explained that “no journalists knew anything about it, it was such a closed country.”
 
The plan the pair adopted when they crossed in to Libya was simple: Look for the oldest man around and ask for his help. It worked quite nicely. They happened across a man who proved to be very accommodating. "Don’t worry,” he said, “I will take you all the way to Ben Gazi.” The heavy days of fighting were over in the city by that point, so entering the territory seemed possible.
 
When they arrived, they tried to check into a hotel. The camera woman accompanying Abdel-Hamid decided she would tell the hotel staff that they were from Moldovan TV. “Is there a Moldovan TV?” asked Abdul-Hamid. Yes, there is. “We didn’t want to lie too much!” she explained. It turned out to be an unnecessary deception in any case; the hotel staff knew they were from Al Jazeera, having recognised Abdel-Hamid from her broadcast in Tahir Square. Fortunately, the Libyan hotel staff were more well-disposed towards Al Jazeera than certain factions of Egyptian society were at the time.
 
Abdel-Hamid and the camera woman found themselves on what she described as the “highway of war.” One road in the north was the artery of the entire country; people were transporting food along it and simply parked alongside the highway, having escaped the cities. It was also the locus for many bombings and other attacks. Abdel-Hamid says the most important skill to develop was “the art of jumping in your car and running away as quick as possible.” But sometimes even that wasn’t enough – some journalists escaped a bombing by quickly driving away into the desert, but subsequently got caught by Gadaffi forces.
 
Clearly, both women have shown admirable conviction in the pursuit of journalism. What inspires them to show such courage? Alison Meston of WAN-IFRA asks: “Is this because you are strong women with strong personalities? Or because you are journalists in pursuit of the truth?”
 
Amin describes how her former colleagues “practice self-censorship all the time. I just wanted to maintain my credibility...better an honourable exit than to lose my credibility.”

Hoda Abdel-Hamid admits it was because “I like daring and being dared. When I finished university it seemed like the perfect job for me.” After 15 years as a war correspondent, now she asks her boss if “once a year can I go to a nice place; now I’m in Vienna.”
 
She also tells the conference of the deep-seated obligation she felt to help others facing crisis: ”You do have a responsibility towards those people. Otherwise no one will know what’s happening. If I hear about a war or even a natural disaster, I know how much they are suffering... I cannot sit at home and let down those people. As long as I have my last drop of energy I will still try and go as far as I can...You go back home and you feel blessed for what you have in life.”
 
Both women studied economics but, when asked about how young journalists should train, Abdel-Hamid says, "International relations are what I would advise.” She also offers a warning to those “very, very brave freelancers” who compete “to go furthest” and get the next shot. “If you get caught or hurt then you have failed in your mission as a journalist, because you can’t do it any more. If a young freelancer is going to go into a conflict zone, basic first aid is essential”.
 
Amin studied at the American University in Cairo, then worked as a disk jockey. In 2000, CNN offered her training shadowing Larry King and Jim Clancy. Then the network gave her the camera – just after 9/11 – and asked her to do her own stories. “It was a test to see if I could do it on my own.” She did – and she liked it. She accepted the position as deputy head of Nile TV on the condition that she could continue to report from the field. Her mother asked her: “Why don’t you just dress up and put make-up on like the other presenters?”

Much has been said about the role of social media in transforming the Middle Eastern political climate. Social media and citizen journalism raise one important question: how do you verify that information?

On the subject of verification, Abdel-Hamid has some simple advice: “Never take a tweet for its value... go and check. She describes how combatants in Libya were filming on mobile phones in Libya – “They just want to give it to a journalist.” However, those offerings should be received with caution, she warns. “Each side going to try and put forward their own propaganda; the more powerful they are, the more they will try and give you.” Taking the footage is fine, but “you still have to do your journalistic research.”

Amin concludes by giving a summation of the Middle Eastern climate: “Things aren’t gong as well as we hoped, but we knew it would be a long struggle. The military rulers are dragging their feet.” She described how 12,000 civilians have been tried in martial courts in eight months' time, which is more than in 30 years under Mubarak. The emergency laws have been reinstated in Egypt. More is still being discovered about the extent to which the state will go to quash protests, including executing virginity tests on female protesters on 9 March. Amnesty confirmed that happened, and Amin reported that a senior general admitted to her that it was true.

She broke the story on CNN, which lead to eight local websites defaming her. She received death threats reading: “Concentrate on your family life or you risk losing EVERYTHING.”

For their journalistic integrity, both Amin and Abdel-Hamid win the respect of the World Editors Forum.

Author

Katherine Travers

Date

2011-10-15 15:36

Author information

The 71st World News Media Congress, the 26th World Editors Forum and the 3rd Women in News Summit will be held from 1 - 3 June 2019 in Glasgow, Scotland.

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In 2011 the newspaper world gathered in Vienna, Austria for IFRA Expo 2011, 63rd World Newspaper Congress and 18th World Editors Forum.

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