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Egypt's endangered journalists help foster next generation

Cub reporters in Egypt are learning how to cover news the mainstream media often ignores, as the youngsters discover their own potential.

CAIRO — Bashkatib, an initiative that began in 2013 to help young writers publish their works, is expanding.

Egypt is known for its suppression of the press, ranking 159th out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders' 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Yet in Minya governorate of Upper Egypt, a small initiative is schooling youngsters in the art of journalism.

On May 21, the initiative launched the Minyawi Newsletter, the second of its projects in southern Egypt. The project has featured stories on journalistic topics and is run by a team known as the Minya Youth, whose members range in age from 12 to 17. The group began operating after its members took a series of journalism workshops. The majority of their news reflects the reality of marginalization that the region has experienced over the past several decades, by recording stories narrated by young people there.

Bashkatib was founded by Ahmad al-Hawari, an Egyptian journalist who established a network of local newsletters published on an irregular basis and managed by young journalists in areas of Egypt that have been neglected or relegated to second-class status. The children produce local news for an internet site and the project also serves as a forum for dialogue among themselves. In addition, they occasionally produce paper pamphlets that are circulated for free in the neighborhoods where they work.

Hawari told Al-Monitor, “Bashkatib works to fill many of the gaps in Egyptian society, beginning with the gap of economically, socially and geographically marginalized" groups and extending to the gap that "separates Egyptian youth from the awareness of their capabilities and ambitions in life.”

From the perspective of Hawari, who has worked as a journalist for a number of large independent Egyptian papers, “The country’s media is highly centralized, and this was reflected in its work, which consistently focused on what was happening in decision-making circles. The media in general neglected voices from marginalized parts of society, and dialogue among and between those parts was all but absent.

"From another aspect, there is a gap in thinking about the personal potential among the youth. Locals often insist on their children studying medicine or engineering, without considering other options such as the creative arts, which I believe form a large part of the economic solution for both individuals and nations.”

The Minyawi project is the fourth newsletter Bashkatib has launched, following three others in neighborhoods in the governorates of Cairo, Dakahlia and Aswan. Hawari outlined the main reasons why a certain region is chosen to test the initiative: It should be a neighborhood, city or governorate that has suffered from some form of powerlessness or that has been diminished somehow.

He added, “The trainees must have a basic minimum of knowledge of how to read and write. We’re mindful of age diversity in selecting the final group, which will participate in activities particular to our organization, and that the age should range from 12 to 17 years old. We’re expending a great deal of effort so that there is a diversity of age between the participants and no one feels alienated. Likewise, we strive for gender diversity and — in some cases — we give preference to female applicants.”

Bashkatib’s website shows various newspaper articles written by the young trainees. They discuss the problems their regions are experiencing, as well as local models of inspiration. In addition, they run satirical cartoons, photos and video clips taken on the job as they produce their articles.

Hawari discussed the project’s practical results, saying, “The youths' confidence in themselves has grown quite a bit. Many of them have begun to think about their future in terms of wider horizons than are traditional. These are the things that make up one of the most important goals of Bashkatib.” He added that the project has helped create a shared space for the people of these regions to express themselves and discuss their dreams and troubles. It has helped shed light on those parts of society.

The project won the “Pioneers of Egypt” prize and was a finalist for the King Abdullah II Prize for Youth Achievement and Innovation.

Mirna Michelle Siha, 16, is one of the trainees in the Minya governorate project. She told Al-Monitor in an interview, “I love the field of the media generally, and I joined some workshops that specialize in this area, like the cinema-photography-narration workshop.”

Siha prepared the first edition of the Minyawi Newsletter, which contained two articles she composed. One addressed Minya's cultural sites and artifacts and pointed out that most Egyptians, even most of the locals, are totally unaware of the governorate’s unique archaeological sites. In her second piece, she shed light on the problem of trash collection, writing, "It’s a big and important problem in the governorate, one that has harmed even the most affluent here. Solving the problem isn’t the task of government officials alone, but it depends on the behaviors of the local citizens as well.”

Siha, who is in her second year of high school, plans to earn a bachelor's degree and then hopes to work as a journalist at one of the large daily newspapers, while cultivating her hobby of filmmaking, which she loves.

By the end of this year, Bashkatib hopes to launch two more projects, in the Cairo governorate and the Delta region. Within 10 years, the initiative hopes to cover a wide area and become a trusted source of information, news and stories.

Between government pressure on journalists in Egypt and the centralization and homogenization that most papers must deal with instead of covering voices that speak for marginalized societies, initiatives like Bashkatib can open up new terrain for the young and help them break through the many obstacles that challenge journalism's survival.

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