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Egypt: when journalists are not welcome

Much of the debate revolved around the use of the word ‘coup’ in describing what had happened, not merely an issue of great symbolic importance but mainly a crucial determinant of continued American aid.

Ferry Biedermann
26 July 2013

One of the oddest aspects of the recent upheaval in Egypt, with mass protests and the army ousting the president, to me was the unprecedented wave of criticism that came out of the country’s activist camp, directed at foreign journalists. From my safe and comfortable perch thousands of miles away, I did not feel compelled to weigh in but now that the dust has started to settle it bears closer examination, the more so since I see it as part of a larger pattern affecting people’s perception of journalism the world over.

To follow what’s almost current standard practice I should include here, near the top of this piece, a disclaimer stating that, of course, nobody is perfect and journalists make mistakes, just like everybody else. There are good journalists and bad journalists, just like in any other profession etc. etc. But that’s neither here nor there and would also contradict the point I’d like to make: Journalists should stop apologising for what they do, or surrounding their work with so many qualifiers that it becomes meaningless.

I don’t care if a journalist who doesn’t know Egypt well nor speaks the language goes out there to cover a story, as long as he or she does a good, professional job, which is possible. Professionalism is the essence of the trade, not specialist knowledge, which can be obtained, nor either a local’s or an anthropologist’s supposed profound understanding of a society, which it is our job to quickly distill for a non-specialist audience. And we’re surely not required to be in love with our subjects, let alone hate them. We don’t even have to feel particularly involved. Was a time when involvement was actually frowned upon in a journalist.

The bulk of the activists’ criticism was aimed at the anyway much reviled mainstream media and concerned mostly what were claimed to be misinterpretations, misunderstandings and outright misrepresentation of almost every aspect of what had occurred in Egypt, starting from the nature of the regime and the opposition, to the mechanism that led to the overthrow of the president. Journalists and analysts were and still are accused of being ignorant or of willfully distorting issues such as legitimacy and democracy in Egypt. Much of the debate revolved around the use of the word ‘coup’ in describing what had happened, not merely an issue of great symbolic importance but mainly a crucial determinant of continued American aid.

I know some of the activists involved and have tangled with them previously. In early 2012, my presentation at the Rotterdam film festival on images of the Arab Spring quickly evolved into a debate on whether journalists should blindly follow activists’ leads and assertions. Then, as now, I argued that we should not. It is our job as journalists to sift and filter, to question and to explore, to painstakingly build as complete a picture as possible of each and every story. We have different jobs: the activist’s is usually to effect change, the journalist’s to report on what happens and, to be sure, interpret and analyse it. Notice that I do not mention objectivity as the main concern; professionalism should be the first priority and part of that is a striving toward objectivity, even if it can never fully be attained.

Well-documented changes in journalism, in the technology, the business model, audience behaviour etc. and in the general idea of what information should be, have conspired to fudge the line between activism and journalism. The end of top-down communication, the idea of multi-cast rather than broadcast, the increased access to varying viewpoints, the search for authenticity, the increased need to stand out and rely on ‘brand-name’ journalists and columnists, and many other trends have made it attractive for new and established media organisations not merely to offer a platform to activists but often rely on them for information and analysis. Activists on social media now often provide the first bits of information that get either rebroadcast raw or get acknowledged as important news-providers, on a par with professional news agencies, whereas before, they would merely be among a variety of sources in a news agency report. Even if proper journalistic footwork then changes the picture, it is often too late to change perceptions because the impact of the first bits of information is overwhelming in determining the image of an event.

There is therefore good reason for journalistic professionalism, which also involves removing the journalist him or herself as much as possible from the picture. It should be about the story and not about us. It is actually important to preserve a certain distance to a subject in order to examine all angles. Part of professionalism is self-knowledge, an awareness of our own predilections so that we can take them into account in our reporting, not nullify them, maybe, but at least weigh them and give them their proper place. It’s a far cry from the involvement that activists have with their cause.

Journalists should be used to and able to cope with these and other pressures; this is not a cry for sympathy. We should first of all display more confidence in our own mission and dare stand up to those who try to push us around, including trend-obsessed media organisations, overweening authorities and pushy activists. But I’m a bit disappointed in some of the liberal or progressive activists who target the media. I am aware that it’s their job to fight their corner and that part of their arsenal is browbeating or guilt tripping less sure-footed journalists into following their activist line. But in a situation such as Egypt’s, where journalists are targeted by the authorities and others, get arrested on charges of espionage, beaten up or raped, as so many other women, I’d expect those who claim to speak for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech to spring to the defense of the press, foreign and domestic, rather than fan the flames of suspicion. 

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