On December 15-16, 2009, the Center for Arab West Understanding conducted a media workshop in Cairo, inviting representatives from the major newspapers in Egypt, and correspondents came from many of the regional centers as well. The topic of the workshop was “Objective and Balanced Reporting in Controversial Issues”, and was organized due to the perception that journalists will often emphasize the sensationalist aspects to a story rather than simply reporting the facts. One indication of this is witnessed when an ordinary altercation between a Muslim and a Christian is reported as a sectarian incident. It is not uncommon for the rumors then to spread, aided by the media, and a true sectarian incident follows in its wake. Whereas the details of this development must of course be reported in a sectarian light, many journalists neglect the original cause, leaving the nation and watching world in ignorance of the wider context, damaging the reputation of Egypt in general and Muslim – Christian relations in particular. Potentials for reconciliation—a particular focus of our center—are especially difficult in this light.
Though not a newspaper, one of the more egregious perpetrators of journalistic negligence operates from outside the country. Among the many fair and balanced Copts who live abroad in the United States, Europe, or Australia are a handful of activists who through their websites highlight the worst incidents of what they term “persecution” of the Copts. While certainly there are incidents of targeted attack upon Christians in Egypt, these expatriate Copts leave out the greater context of generally peaceful relations and freedom of worship which characterize the nation as a whole. Instead, they rail against the failures of the government to prevent the atrocities which do occur, and rally their fellow Copts living abroad to protest and demonstrate against the administration. A number of their complaints can be seen as valid, but the tenor of their discourse poisons the national unity, and increasingly even Copts in Egypt access their reports to survey the political and religious landscape. Yet the question must be posed: Operating outside of Egypt, where do such sites get their information?
Enter Nermine Rida into the picture. As we contacted the editorial boards of the major newspapers her name was suggested as a worthy journalist to invite from Upper Egypt, writing for the regional newspaper, ‘The News of Minia’. While this paper has little to no distribution outside of Minia, it is not uncommon for the larger Cairo-based newspapers to work with freelance regional journalists such as Nermine, rather than assume the larger costs of an employed regional staff. In fact according to her and other journalist testimony from our workshop, only one paper – al-Masry al-Youm (the Daily Egyptian, one of the largest independent newspapers) – has employees in Minia on a regular monthly salary. Fortunately, he was able also to attend our training.
While many journalists had interesting stories to tell, Nermine attracted further attention due to her admission that she was a contributor also to Copts United, one of the internet sites described above. Upon further conversation, however, she admitted that she no longer participates with this organization. One of the primary reasons is financial – they do not pay well. On average for articles she submitted for publication as a freelancer for regular Egyptian newspapers she has earned less than a third of that by submitting to Copts United. Furthermore, the monies due her from Copts United were often not paid at all, and when promised required her to travel to Cairo to meet a local representative from whom she could collect her money.
This admission seemed perplexing, for expatriate Copts are wealthier in general than their Egyptian counterparts. Given that they lack the information necessary on the ground, why would they not pay above the given rate to get the stories they need to fuel their propaganda? Nermine related this was part of their strategy, which was another reason she no longer works with them. In the internet age, anyone can be a reporter. The stories, news feeds, pictures, and video which appear on Copts United, she claims, come from people on the street. These submit their amateur work to the website, and sometimes receive compensation, sometimes not. Their reward is appearing on the website and contributing to the “defense” of the Coptic people. While this in and of itself does not represent a major problem, she claims that Copts United encourages their sources not to report on the wider context of the story or to quote from opposing statements. If they can obtain their information in this manner, why should they pay a seasoned journalist?
The answer to this question is provided by Osama al-Ghazoly, who is a seasoned journalist, writing currently for Rose al-Yusef. He states that unless there are professionals editing these comments taken in the heat of the moment, putting them into proper context, the situation is very dangerous. Context and opposing viewpoints are essential for balanced and accurate reporting. These, however, according to Nermine, are the very things Copts United consciously neglects.
Due to her insistence on keeping to proper journalistic standards Nermine enjoys a good reputation in the area, though with certain Copts her relations are strained. While many Coptic activists will angle their stories to present “persecution” against Christians, Nermine reports that out of fifty shooting incidents in Minia this year, only two were between a Muslim and a Christian. By keeping her stories within this context she can be trusted to report about real incidents, even sectarian ones, when they occur.
Unfortunately, Nermine relates that the situation for journalists in Upper Egypt can push them into sensationalism. Her main occupation is not as a journalist, but as an elementary school teacher, and though she has a fixed salary, like most in the area, it is not high. Reporting about conflict, especially religious, is not more financially rewarding for the reporter, but can be more rewarding for the editorial boards which want more than simple reporting about ordinary community squabbles. While her freelance activity can add supplementary income, it is her journalistic principles which establish her reputation, which she claims is of greater value than her wage. Yet as stated above, with only two journalists from one newspaper employed in their field on a full-time basis, it is no surprise that reports from the area are characterized by incomplete data, missing sources, personal bias, and clear sensationalism. A lack of professionalism stems from a lack of training, as most newspapers do not invest in the development of their Upper Egyptian human resources.
While we spoke with many of the other journalists present in our workshop, this conversation with Nermine Rida proved especially valuable. Her perspective on two otherwise little known subjects—the relation of expatriate Coptic activists to Egyptian media and the working conditions of Upper Egyptian journalists—will help us to understand the background obstacles to promoting reconciliation. Though our main task does not seek to confront these maladies, through consideration of the opposing voices our own message can be presented more clearly. Reconciliation depends on, among other things, a clear presentation of the facts and root causes of conflicting interests. Unfortunately, either due to unapologetic bias or insufficient quality control, neither Coptic activist nor Upper Egyptian reporting is known for its clarity.
To view this report online, please click here.