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Maurice Chammah Headshot

Should Journalists Be Protected?

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Thursday was World Press Freedom Day. On Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) published an article listing the arrests, injuries, and assaults of at least eighteen journalists covering recent clashes near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense. Some reporters were beaten, others shot at, a few captured or detained by the military.

CJP's Mohammed Abdel Dayem commented with indignation, "Authorities cannot stand by while journalists are being beaten -- at times so viciously that their lives are put at risk... We call on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to identify the attackers and bring them to justice immediately, as well as to release journalists in custody. Journalists must be allowed to carry out their work without threat of physical assault or arrest."

I had always felt uncomfortable with this kind of indignation, and I finally began to understand it when I discovered NYU Professor Jay Rosen's blog PressThink. Rosen argues that journalists have a creed, a religion of sorts, in which it is taken as holy writ that they have a right to be protected and to go about their work without intimidation. This is based on some version of the American first amendment. He who attacks or arrests journalists, the story goes, is violating something more than just the journalist's wellbeing. Censorship, whether physical or bureaucratic, is sacrilege.

For the past few years, the rise of what is called 'citizen journalism' or 'public journalism', which Rosen himself has helped to pioneer, has made the question of journalists' rights all the more tricky. The Huffington Post's campaign coverage initiative Off the Bus was an example of how the death of newspapers and the Internet-driven rise of audience participation in reporting can be harnessed to increase credibility.

But what about when the audience is fighting? In Egypt, the concept of citizen journalism has been as celebrated as anywhere over the past year. But if every citizen is a journalist, and citizens are protesting the government, how can journalists credibly demand protection? And who are they demanding protection from?

Last October, I attended a press conference in the aftermath of clashes between protesters and the military outside of the Maspero building. Revolutionaries were claiming that the military had run over innocent demonstrators with their vehicles. The military leadership were claiming that protesters shot first, and put themselves in front of the vehicles. At the press conference, a chaotic three hours in a tightly packed room, activists told their stories. Journalists piped in with their own memories of the night, and everyone traded footage, pictures and anecdotes. By the end of the conference, it was impossible to tell who was the subject of the story and who was the writer. Activists and journalists had become indistinguishable. "This is one of the worst things that happened," lamented Editor Rania Al Malky to me in an interview at the office of the Daily News Egypt. "A lot of journalists lost their bearings and a lot of activists started thinking of themselves as journalists...The lines are so blurred."

The roots of this issue lie in the Mubarak days, many journalists here have told me, when to report on anything that the regime might find sensitive was to be cast as opposition. Neutral reporting, when it confronted a government eager to control information, became de facto activism. The dynamic remains now, and it has become dangerous for journalists.

In the popular independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, Amr Ezzat described how he and several other reporters were nearly attacked a few days ago by anti-revolution Egyptians. "The mere fact that we were journalists," he wrote, "was evidence enough for them that we were involved in the revolution."

And then, there are the foreign journalists. In November, they flocked to Mohammed Mahmoud Street when clashes broke out. For nearly a week they breathed in the tear gas with revolutionary youth, ran from the rubber bullets, remained on the revolutionary side of the divisions. Like reporters embedded with soldiers, they experienced firsthand the fear and anger, smelled the blood at the field hospitals, and like Mona El Tahawy loudly decried the arrests. How much could they physically imperil themselves before starting to take on the anti-military outlook of those around them? Did El Tahawy arrive to protest or to report?

When the Committee to Protect Journalists and other NGO's decry "attacks on the press" and demand that Egyptian and foreign journalists be able to go about their work without problems, these questions usually go unanswered. It is tragic when journalists are killed going about their work, and it is natural to want someone or something to blame.

But if every protester can hold up a camera or write a blog and then claim protection, how can journalists demand protection? And when they do demand protection, who are they demanding it from, exactly? The CJP targets the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Certainly, the SCAF has been accused of beating journalists who they arrest, and this is reprehensible. But the calls to protect journalists, by groups like the CJP, go beyond just demanding an end to beatings. They demand that the SCAF protect journalists. What are they supposed to do? Send the very soldiers who the protesters are attacking to go guard a few foreign correspondents or Egyptian journalists who openly side with the protesters? It is easy to decry, but much more difficult to offer solutions to these messy questions.

Others target the mysterious 'thugs' who populate many of these clashes. What purpose does it serve to demand that mysterious 'thugs' stop harassing journalists? Publishing a few articles about instances of harassment strengthens the perception that journalists and protesters and all 'outsiders' are on the same side.

Ezzat, the reporter who was nearly attacked, suggested a different approach. Instead of simply decrying those who nearly attacked him, he looked for understanding. "I could tell from their appearance how authentically terrified and worried they were about the fate of their neighborhood," he wrote, "in which they had previously been safe and secure until these 'outsiders' came to the nearby square with their protests, press, and cameras and turned their neighborhood into a battle area."

Ezzat explains that Egyptians who do not agree with the protests increasingly view reporters and protesters as one and the same, as "outsiders" who are endangering their neighborhoods. We are no longer in the media-friendly days of the original revolution, when a majority of Egyptians wanted Mubarak out and the narrative of liberation was obvious. Now, the narrative is not clean. People are fighting and do not know who to trust. Ezzat started to reflect, consider and report on why journalists might be in danger. He turned personal danger into the kind of curiosity that produces powerful journalism. For others, indignation seems to be enough.