My life as a state television journalist

 


 

[[A TV journalist used to being in the thick of the action, I was 2,000 miles from home on the day that upended my country and my life. In London for a workshop on freedom of expression, I sat transfixed in front of the BBC on Jan. 25, 2011, as images of the Arab Spring protests flickered across the screen. I couldn’t wait to get back in my anchor chair on state television and bear witness to history in the making. After a decade and a half climbing the ranks and pushing the envelope at Nile TV, it turns out I remained quite naive about what the government would let me get away with.]]

When I got back to work a week later, I quickly discovered that a media blackout had been imposed on coverage of the protests against President Hosni Mubarak. Mere minutes from my office, tens of thousands of Egyptians assembled on Tahrir Square, clamoring for regime change. On Nile TV, viewers were treated instead to serene pictures of the eponymous river. I asked to take a camera to the bustling square. “Go cover the pro-Mubarak rallies instead,” my boss ordered.

These were small, scattered affairs ­— a futile attempt by the government to counter the massive anti-regime protests. I tried to negotiate a compromise and cover both sides. Permission denied. Later that afternoon, things took a medieval twist as regime thugs on horses and camels stormed Tahrir Square and attacked protesters with whips and canes. While the international media broadcast the dramatic events live, Nile TV was busy interviewing an analyst on the political crisis in Lebanon.

As I got ready to go on air Feb. 2, the producers handed me the news bulletin. It made no mention of the “Battle of the Camels” that had just taken place. I learned that Abdel Latif al-Menawi, the man in charge of the news department for state television, had ordered them not to mention the incident. This was the first time in all my years working for Nile TV that I became aware of direct editorial interference by the station’s management. Because we broadcast in English and French for Egypt’s expatriate community, Nile TV had long enjoyed more editorial freedom than our Arabic-language sister channels. Not anymore. As it turns out, Menawi had called the producers several times that day, issuing new directives every couple of hours. The presenters were told to read Interior Ministry press releases that acknowledged that protesters had been killed while denying the security forces’ involvement. I refused.

For my live talk show that evening, I had planned to host an outspoken Mubarak regime critic. A couple of hours before the show, Menawi summoned me to his office to tell me there had been a “slight” change of plan. A member of the president’s National Democratic Party, Hussein Haridy, would be my guest instead. “You may discuss the uprising,” I remember Menawi telling me. “But you can only talk about attempts by Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah to destabilize Egypt and the need for a national reconciliation dialogue between different factions of society.” 

For an hour, I sat aghast as the irrepressible regime apologist droned on about how the protesters were all “thugs” and “hired agents.” That night, overwhelmed by shame and guilt, I could not fall asleep. The next morning, I slipped on jeans and a T-shirt instead of a formal suit, having unconsciously decided to quit. Upon hearing the protesters clamoring for “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” on my way to work, I parked my car and marched enthusiastically into Tahrir Square.

“You may discuss the uprising ... but you can only talk about attempts by Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah to destabilize Egypt.” 

I took out my cellphone and banged out a message to my boss. “Forgive me, I’m not coming back,” I wrote. “I’m on the side of the people, not the regime.” Moments later, I got a call from the head of security at state TV: “Miss Amin, what happened? Are you upset about something?” He sounded anxious. Before I had a chance to reply, the mobile network went down and my phone went dead. I was relieved that I did not have to explain myself. And for the first time in years, I felt free.

 

[[Nile TV was launched on Oct. 31, 1994, as the first Arab satellite channel to broadcast in foreign languages. Along with its other state-run sisters, it is located along the Nile in downtown Cairo inside the iconic Maspero television building. The state TV headquarters was inaugurated in 1960 to house the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, the oldest state-run broadcasting organization in the Arab world. That same year, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the press to extol his socialist policies. The goal, from the beginning, was to have journalism serve as a mouthpiece for the ruling authorities.]]

Since then, brief periods of relative freedom after political transitions have inevitably been followed by renewed crackdowns on free speech. We saw it happen in the 1970s, when President Anwar Sadat reissued press licenses to keep journalists in line. And while the early Mubarak years were again marked by optimism, that too proved short-lived. Today, that depressing trend shows no sign of abating under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The handful of privately owned channels, meanwhile, are led by wealthy businessmen with close links to the regime and little incentive to rock the boat. Ahmed Bahgat, the owner of Dream TV, Egypt’s first private station, has reportedly pressured a number of dissenting presenters to leave the channel to avoid the government’s wrath. In 2004, prominent journalist Ibrahim Eissa complained that his program on Dream TV was suspended as the price to pay for the rescheduling of Baghat’s debts to state-owned banks. As journalist Ashraf Khalil wrote in 2011, in the final years of the Mubarak era, “Overt censorship plagued the newly founded independent newspapers, while self-censorship pervaded the state-owned publishers.”

Journalists who refuse to toe the line can expect to be fired, arrested or worse. Reda Hilal, the deputy editor-in-chief of the semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper and an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime’s human rights abuses, has not been heard from since his disappearance in 2003. Just days before, he’d been overheard at a cocktail party disparaging Mubarak’s son and presumptive heir, Gamal. A year later, opposition journalist Abdel-Halim Qandil, the editor-in-chief of the Nasserite Party newspaper, was kidnapped outside his home in Giza, blindfolded and beaten before being dumped naked on the Suez Desert Road.

So it came as no surprise when the revolution turned on state TV journalists sent to Tahrir Square once the coverage blackout was lifted. Several of my colleagues were targeted and attacked — both verbally and physically — by the protesters, who raised banners lampooning those same anchors and producers who had been painting them as “thugs” and “agents of foreign powers.”

Even those of us who sided with the protesters early on came under criticism. As the only state newscaster to resign, I quickly became an international cause celebre. But I had my share of detractors as well. In a Guardian interview a week after I quit, Lawrence Pintak, an Arab media expert and dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, dismissed my resignation and that of others that followed as a face-saving ploy. "We see this in every revolution,” Pintak told the British newspaper. “State media employees see which way the wind is blowing and suddenly get a conscience."

I was upset, and I was angry. For one thing, no one knew which way the wind was blowing by Feb. 3. And I felt that if Pintak had followed my career through the Mubarak years, he wouldn’t have been so dismissive. So I shot off an email telling him exactly that.

 

[[In all my years in journalism, I never considered myself a regime shill. My loyalty had always been to the public. But I knew better than most the price of privilege of being on air, and the lines not to cross.]]

To this day, I am proud of all the times I was referred to internal disciplinary committees over my “controversial” reporting and my weekly talk show, “Frontline,” being taken off the air. In one episode devoted to human trafficking, I had dared to denounce the marriages of young girls to wealthy visitors from the Gulf as a disguised form of exploitation. State TV’s monitoring unit, which sends weekly reports to the channel bosses, lit me up and urged restraint in dealing with such “sensitive” matters. Another time, the censors complained that my skirt was too short and that my bare knees were a distraction. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or flattered!

During those tedious investigations, I would always defend myself by telling the TV prosecutors that I had merely stated the facts. Each time that I was allowed back on the air after being suspended for several days or weeks, I would perceive it as a small battle victory in a censorship war that I knew, even then, I could never win.

So why did I keep at it? Simple: My efforts, I believed, were not all in vain. With every story I covered, I was able to push the boundaries of freedom of expression just a little bit further. And little by little, day by day, the “taboo” issues that were never spelled out but that everyone knew — religion, sex, politics — lost some of their potency.

It was a lonely fight. The only support I got was from my family and friends outside the workplace, most of whom were journalists working for foreign news organizations. We would occasionally go out for dinner and joke about the trouble I had caused or how the state was looking over my shoulder. Back in the newsroom, I met more resistance from my colleagues than from the censors themselves.

Back in the newsroom, I met more resistance from my colleagues than from the censors themselves.

Many of my workmates had been hired for their connections rather than their merits, that old Middle Eastern curse of “wasta.” The preferential treatment lavished on the feckless offspring of politicians and generals inevitably discouraged the hardest of workers. In the months before the revolution, I had gathered a small team of journalism graduates who spoke flawless English, hoping they could develop the channel. One by one, they were chased away by less-qualified colleagues who were jealous or intimidated.

Self-censorship was rampant, leading to ridiculous results. When a 6.6-magnitude earthquake struck Bam, Iran, on Dec. 26, 2003, killing more than 25,000 people, our planned top story was Mubarak’s phone call to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. When I pressed our producer to move things around, she made me sign a piece of paper taking responsibility in my capacity as news reader. “But we must always start the news bulletin with the president,” she protested.

Perhaps the most awkward moment I experienced was during a live broadcast with a male co-anchor in November 2010. The legislative elections had just taken place, and we were in the studio conducting telephone interviews with parliamentarians who had been sworn in only hours earlier. One of them was a Copt, and I asked him if he was satisfied with the Christian representation in parliament. Only one Christian had won a seat in the previous elections five years earlier, prompting Mubarak to mandate a quota for underrepresented groups such as women and Copts.

There was a long silence after I asked the question, followed by a click. Maybe he was afraid to acknowledge that the quotas were but a fig leaf that did little to really address political exclusion. Or perhaps a producer in the studio had cut the line. In any event, the dreaded dead air paled compared with my colleague’s reaction. After apologizing to viewers for what he described as my “inept behavior,” he turned to me and scoffed, “You should not ask such questions!”

 

[[For every humiliation, though, I had moments when I felt that my reporting had made a difference. In 2002, I produced a feature story about Asmaa, an 11-year-old girl who spearheaded a door-to-door campaign against female genital mutilation in her rural community after the local sheikh told her the practice wasn’t a religious duty. At the time, 97% of married women reported undergoing the procedure.]]

After the story aired, I got a call from an official with the State Information Service asking me why I was trying “to tarnish Egypt’s image.” I told him that on the contrary, I was actually spotlighting positive examples in society. He hung up, but not before threatening retaliation. Six years later, after I had revisited the issue at least a dozen times, parliament finally passed a law criminalizing female genital mutilation (FGM). Ironically, I was among a small group of journalists who received honorary certificates from the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood in recognition of my “efforts to raise awareness about FGM.“

In January 2006, I was again chided for my reporting — but this time, the rebuke left me in fear of my life. That New Year’s Day, I had covered the violent dispersal of Sudanese refugees protesting outside the UN refugee agency in Cairo that killed 34 people, mostly women and children. Three weeks later, I traveled to Khartoum to cover an African Union summit. Shortly after my arrival, an Egyptian stranger approached me at my hotel where I was having dinner with a state TV colleague.

Without asking if he could join us, the man pulled up a chair and sat at our table. He leaned toward me: “Shahira,” he sneered, “let me give you a word of advice.” Arabic-language broadcasts, he intimated, are allowed some leeway as a means for the public to vent their anger; not so CNN, with its foreign audience. “Any negative reporting can cause you to disappear off the face of the Earth,” the stranger continued. “Do you understand?”

“Any negative reporting can cause you to disappear off the face of the Earth,” the stranger continued. “Do you understand?”

I excused myself from the dinner table and went straight to my room. I lay awake until the early hours, my heart thudding in the darkness. Any doubts about the man’s identity were dispelled two days later when I saw him on the flight back to Cairo. Upon arrival at the airport, I saw customs officers greet him with the type of formal salute reserved for high-ranking security officers. He whizzed through immigration and quickly disappeared from sight.

For several months after that, I was careful in my news story selection: the Sphinx getting a facelift, a Ramses statue replica being transported to a new museum in Giza. But I longed to get back to covering hard news. Before the end of the year, I had reverted to my old ways.

 

[[When blunt threats didn’t work, Mubarak’s goons often turned to more sophisticated methods of persuasion. In my case, the regime hoped to co-opt my collaboration with CNN to display a friendly face to an international audience. Since 2000, I’d been contributing to the channel’s “World Report,” a now-defunct show featuring reports from a network of international affiliates. Two years later, I was given a chance to participate in CNN’s “Inside Africa” program.]]

Attending a three-week training program at the CNN Center in Atlanta in October 2002, I’d daydreamed about breaking free of the shackles of the state TV censors. But after I got back home, I quickly discovered that the government had other plans. When I applied to take leave from Nile TV for the freelance reporting job at CNN, I was summoned to the office of Information Minister Safwat el-Sherif. “Why leave? It’s only a part-time job they are offering,” he told me. Then he revealed his thinking: “This is the first time that CNN has offered to hire a reporter from state TV. We can use this to our advantage. You can help promote our agenda.”

As I considered my options, I came to realize the pitfalls of quitting my job at Nile TV. On top of the security risk, I could expect constant harassment from the same authorities who could refuse to issue the permits I needed to report my CNN stories. So I decided to stay on and use the CNN opportunity as leverage to push for greater freedom of speech on Egyptian television. For each new story I produced for “Inside Africa,” I produced a similar piece for Nile TV that allowed me to explore hitherto forbidden topics on state TV such as sexual harassment, minority rights and sectarian violence.

As expected, my work was closely scrutinized by Mubarak’s notorious security agencies. I have no doubt that my phone was bugged and my emails monitored. On one occasion, an informant who had followed me to the Marriot Hotel in Cairo’s posh Zamalek district sat at a nearby table. As if the dark glasses weren’t enough of a giveaway, my handler was comically holding his newspaper upside down. I walked up to him and indignantly asked why he was following me. Without a hint of embarrassment, he told me it was for my own good: “You are a high-profile journalist, and we are here to protect you.”

As if the dark glasses weren’t enough of a giveaway, my handler was comically holding his newspaper upside down.

My reporting had made the authorities edgy, and it was not long before they decided to try a different tactic. Dorreya Sharaf al-Din, my boss at Nile TV, summoned me to her office one morning in early 2004 to inform me that I would be accompanying Mubarak on his next trip abroad. She paused for a moment, then told me: “I had nominated one of your colleagues but the security agencies called back, saying you have been selected by the presidency to go on this trip. Congratulations!”

 

[[For most journalists, the chance to become a “presidential reporter” is a badge of honor. In addition to the prestige and bragging rights, the material benefits aren’t negligible: a hefty travel allowance, accommodation at luxury hotels, the chance to see the world. But I also knew that this “promotion” was little more than an attempt to buy my loyalty. Besides, CNN had already commissioned me to cover the 2004 Algerian presidential elections. I declined.]]

The following day, Sharaf al-Din summoned me back to tell me this was an offer I couldn't refuse. My trip to Algeria had to be canceled, and I would instead travel with Mubarak to US President George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch. When I tried to protest, she interrupted me sternly: “No one says no to the president!”

In retrospect, I don’t regret my role in what proved to be a turning point in US-Egyptian relations as well as an eye-opening experience. The Egyptian newspapers had reported that visits to the ranch were “a courtesy reserved for close US allies.” On arrival in Houston, however, it quickly became apparent that Mubarak had in fact been shut out of the White House to save Bush the embarrassment of officially receiving a Middle East dictator soon after the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Bush went on to wag a finger at Mubarak, telling him in effect to reform or meet Hussein’s fate. After their press conference, the US leader asked the American journalists to stay for Easter brunch while pointedly excluding Mubarak’s media delegation, yours truly included. It was to be Mubarak’s last US visit for six years, a break with his long-standing tradition of paying annual visits to Washington.

I would go on to cover many other presidential trips, including to several European and Arab capitals. Admittedly, my coverage lacked substance as I was only allowed to report the diplomatic rhetoric conveyed to us by presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad, even as I learned a great deal about behind-the-scenes politics and diplomacy. I felt like a parrot repeating the same phrases over and over again. Thankfully CNN still provided me an outlet to speak out, even as my bosses at Nile TV chided me for stories ”not befitting of a presidential reporter.”

 

[[A few weeks after Mubarak’s overthrow, I found out that Information Minister Anas El Fekky had banned me from traveling pending an investigation into my resignation. “But where is El Fekky now? Where is Mubarak?” I barked at the hapless bureaucrat who broke the news to me. “They are both in prison. Those who lied to the public should be punished, not the ones who distanced themselves from the lies.” I was assured that the ban would be lifted. A few days later, I was informed that I could travel.]]

It was in this new era of freedom that I decided to go back to state television. In late March 2011, the spokeswoman for the US Embassy called me to tell me I’d been nominated to interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her upcoming visit to Cairo. In an awkward meeting with Menawi, the state TV news chief, I asked if he’d give me back my weekly interview show, “In the Hot Seat.” Once he learned that Clinton would be my first guest, he agreed.

 

Shahira Amin interviewed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Nile TV in March 2011.  Shahira Amin

 

My return to the “propaganda machine” raised eyebrows, but I must say it was a totally different work atmosphere from the one I had left behind. In those heady days, the old regime mouthpieces were scrambling to regain their lost credibility as power shifted to privately owned satellite channels. Freed from the censorship and editorial interference that had pushed me to resign just weeks earlier, many state TV journalists discovered a new passion for challenging the status quo.

The so-called deep state remained firmly entrenched, however. Within months of returning to work, the security agencies refused to renew the security permit that allowed me to shoot in the street. This meant I could no longer work as a correspondent for CNN or any other broadcast media organization, and I was forced to make a career shift to digital journalism. Before quitting CNN, however, I was able to break one last story that I consider the most important — and the most dangerous — of my entire career.

When I went on air at the end of May 2011, rumors had been swirling for months that the military was conducting virginity tests on young female protesters camped out at Tahrir Square. I first learned about the barbaric practice from Samira Ibrahim, a young activist from the south who told me she had been violated along with several others on the grounds of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. I had trouble believing my country’s armed forces could act like this in the 21st century, but several Amnesty International researchers told me the same thing.

Armed with these eyewitness accounts, I called a senior general and asked him for his side of the story. I was expecting a full-throated denial. Instead, he told me that the tests were a “routine procedure” conducted on female prisoners. “Besides, these were girls who had camped out in Tahrir,” he told me calmly. “It was not your daughter or mine. We wanted to prove they were not virgins anyway.”

This was the first public admission from a military general, and it created a global uproar. Soon after the story was published on the CNN website, hundreds of protesters took to the streets, chanting “Down with the military.” The backlash was instantaneous: Local websites falsely reported that I was being tried in a military court, and I received dozens of threats on Facebook. One chilling message read, “If you continue to cause a scandal for the military, you will be subjected to a similar test.” But I felt sweetly vindicated several months later when an administrative court ruled the practice could never again take place.

 

[[Even that controversy paled, however, compared with the interview I conducted later that year with just-released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. All these years later, it’s still the first thing that shows up when you Google my name. It all began one October evening in 2011, when I answered a cellphone call during a trip to Vienna. To my alarm, the man on the other end introduced himself as Egyptian Information Minister Osama Haikal. Book the next flight home, he told me: “We have a scoop for you.”]]

Haikal revealed that a prisoner exchange was scheduled to take place in the border city of Rafah later that week. I would interview Shalit, who’d been held captive by Hamas for five years, while my colleagues would get to speak with some of the 1,200 Palestinians released in the swap. I was of course familiar with the pervasive anti-Israeli sentiment in Egyptian society. Was I being picked for the delicate assignment in retaliation for my military expose? Or did my standing as an internationally recognized journalist aim to placate the Israelis, who I later learned opposed the interview from the get-go? At the time, all I could think of was the historic nature of the deal. I eagerly accepted.

Two days later, I arrived in Rafah with a small camera crew from state TV awaiting details on the time and location of the interview. I met up with the governor of North Sinai, who told me I’d soon be meeting “a very charismatic general.” The following morning I was taken to the office of a relatively unknown brigadier general named Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who at the time was head of Military Intelligence. Sisi stood up in his military garb and greeted me. “So you are the lady that quit state TV during the revolution?” he asked as he stretched out his hand. “What got in your head to do something like that?” I smiled. “I am proud of what I did,” I told him. He promptly declared the meeting over and signaled me to leave.

I was distressed at the thought that the interview had been canceled or handed over to some other journalist. Instead, the governor asked me to be ready the next morning by 6 a.m. Four hours later, Shalit was brought in, escorted by six masked gunmen from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Shalit looked frail and frightened. His face was pale and his voice barely audible. I shook his hand and asked if he would speak to me. “The world wants to know how you are,” I said. He hesitated for a moment. “Keep it short,” he answered.

The Hamas militants remained in the room taking pictures as I spoke to Shalit. So did a couple of military officials whom I assumed were from the Egyptian intelligence and security agencies. Shalit asked to first call his parents to let them know he was coming home. I could tell he was nervous and I asked the masked militiamen to leave. They reluctantly complied. I too left the room to give Shalit a chance to speak with his parents before getting to work.

It was not easy for either of us. Shalit was shaking and I had to pause several times to reassure him, at one point holding his trembling hand. Halfway through the interview, I decided we’d both had enough. When the interview was broadcast minutes later, it provoked outrage in both Israel and Egypt. Several Israelis sent me hate mail and called me “brutal and inhumane” for “prolonging Shalit’s suffering.” Egyptian commentators, meanwhile, condemned me as a traitor for having spoken to the Israeli soldier. I felt I was just doing my job as a journalist. I’d asked Shalit about his time in captivity and his plans after he returned home. He in turn had sent a message of peace — something the haters on both sides did not wish to hear.

 

[[Ironically, the freest time for me as a journalist was under the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. A fierce secularist, I had refused to vote for someone who proposed to mix religion and politics. But voting for his old regime rival, Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, was also out of the question, so I boycotted the election. As it turned out, under the Muslim Brotherhood regime I found myself able to cover Muslim converts to Christianity, the plight of Egypt’s persecuted Baha’is, gender-based violence and a host of other previously forbidden issues. I even got to interview the president himself.]]

In August 2012, two months after his election, Morsi personally asked me to conduct his debut interview on state TV. I was told this was because of my “stance in the revolution.” At the time, Morsi had just granted himself broad executive and legislative powers, sparking an outcry from democracy advocates, and he was looking for an outlet to explain his motives. The decree, he argued, was necessary to protect the newly elected Constituent Assembly from being dissolved by Mubarak-era judges.

As it happens, it wasn't our first encounter. I had interviewed Morsi for a piece on reactions to the US presidential election in 2008. At a US Embassy reception that night, State Information Service Chairman Ayman al-Kaffas had told me to thank my lucky stars that I had not been arrested for giving airtime to the opposition.

Our 2012 reunion would prove no less controversial. I wore a knee-length skirt and a formal jacket, what I normally wear for TV interviews. I didn't make much of it, since Morsi knew I didn't wear the veil when he picked me. Mubarak had banned female broadcasters who wore the hijab from appearing on the air in an effort to give Egypt a veneer of modernity and secularism. However, he let state TV anchors wear whatever they felt comfortable with.

Ironically, the freest time for me as a journalist was under the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Trouble started as soon as I arrived at the Kubba Palace. Morsi's veiled aide, Pakinam al-Sharqawi, greeted me with a disapproving look and a request to change my outfit. “President Morsi doesn’t really care what you wear," she said, "but I’m concerned about a backlash from the Salafists.”

“This is how I dress,” I replied. She removed a black shawl from her shoulders and covered my legs with it. Before I could protest, Morsi walked into the room with his hand stretched out to greet me — a surprising gesture from a Muslim Brotherhood figure.

When the interview aired a few hours later, I got it from all sides. Liberals accused me of being a covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood for sitting down with their archenemy. The ultra-conservative Salafists, meanwhile, were outraged that the Islamist president would give his first state TV interview to an “uncovered” woman. Influential cleric Mahmoud Shaaban assailed Morsi on his TV show. “Why her?” he protested. "He could have chosen a male interviewer.” TV satirist Bassem Youssef in turn tore into the TV preacher: "Bring Morsi a man! He needs a man!”

Within months of our interview, large-scale protests erupted against Morsi. As the country was once again plunged into political turmoil, I received a call from a senior Egyptian diplomat who informed me that someone was already being groomed to replace Morsi. He urged me to “join the winning side.” I was dumbstruck. “Do you want a seat in parliament? Or money?” he asked. "Neither," I answered.

The following morning, a smear campaign against me started in the media. I was branded a traitor and a spy. One article said the international awards I was getting were not for my journalism but rather for my “espionage.” Another alleged I was a “promoter of homosexuality” and “an atheist,” serious charges in conservative Egypt. I considered filing a libel lawsuit but knew this was the work of the untouchable security agencies.

 

[[Morsi ended up being toppled by a popular military coup on July 3, 2013, along with Egypt’s tentative experience with democracy and freedom of expression. Since then, censorship has steadily become more constraining to the point of becoming unbearable under Sisi. This year, the president hand-picked members of the new National Media Council, making sure to exclude any opposition figures. Makram Mohamed Ahmed, its chairman, headed the Press Syndicate under the Mubarak regime and has been described by fellow journalists as being “more royal than the king.” The regulatory body has the power to fine or suspend publications and broadcasters and grant or revoke licenses for foreign media organizations.]]

Meanwhile, the media outlets that flowered in the wake of the 2011 uprising are all struggling with censorship in one way or another. In an unprecedented move, the government blocked more than 70 websites in May and June for “spreading lies” or “having links with terrorist groups,“ usually a reference to Morsi’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. While the majority of the banned websites are either owned or funded by the group’s sympathizers, others include the liberal Mada Masr and Daily News Egypt.

I felt the changes personally at Nile TV, where all the episodes of my weekly show now had to be pre-recorded and watched by the station’s deputy manager before being aired. She would write down her remarks and submit them to the head of the channel, who would then decide whether to air the show. Several times, I was asked to cut out “controversial” comments by an interviewee, or even an entire question or answer. In one particularly egregious case, statements from a respected guest questioning the military’s special privileges under the 2014 constitution were left entirely on the cutting room floor. Furious, I took a break for several months but was not ready to quit just then.

What really pushed me over the edge, sadly, was the behavior of my own colleagues. Some had never forgiven me what they saw as an act of betrayal against the old regime. In the summer of 2015, a news anchor filed a legal complaint accusing me of fabricating news and threatening national security after I criticized ongoing human rights abuses at a European Union panel in 2015. Here I was lamenting the fact that more journalists were in Egyptian prisons after the revolution than under Mubarak, and one of my own colleagues had denounced me!

I quit Nile TV for good later that summer, and was acquitted a year later. Today, I am an independent journalist, writing on a freelance basis for various news portals. And while I miss my work as a broadcaster, I’ve found new meaning as the co-founder of the Egyptian Women Journalists Union, a nonprofit organization that helps train underserved journalism students and fresh graduates in the provinces outside Cairo. Our trainees often complain about rigid editors, afraid to take risks. I am confident that with the right help and advice, this new generation of journalists will carry the torch that was first lit in 2011 and change the media landscape in Egypt.

Found in: Press freedom, Longform

Shahira Amin is an award-winning journalist based in Cairo. Former deputy head of state-run Nile TV, she quit her job at the height of the 2011 uprising to protest censorship of her work. She has since worked as a freelance writer for Index on Censorship, Freemuse, CNN and various news websites and as a filmmaker producing documentaries for UN agencies.

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