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Top Egyptian TV Journalist Explains Why She Quit
Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin.
Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin found herself making the news rather than reporting it when she resigned from her post as deputy director of Egypt’s leading state-run broadcaster, Nile TV, at the height of the anti-regime protests.
“I was not prepared to feed the public lies,” said Amin, who worked for the network for more than 20 years. “I was simply not allowed to do my work as a journalist so I was left with no choice.”
The veteran broadcaster was spurred to take action when a virtual news blackout had been imposed on the historic demonstrations taking place in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square.
“On state TV, it was as if nothing at all was happening in Tahrir,” said Amin, who returned from a work trip in London on January 30 to a desk stacked with press releases from the ministry of information accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of fomenting the unrest and talking of foreign interference in Egypt..
“The cameras were fixed on a bridge overlooking the Nile; the anchor said the situation was calm and all the interviewees on talk shows called the protesters traitors and foreign agents.”
As a foreign language broadcaster, Amin said that Nile TV was usually afforded more leeway when reporting domestic affairs in Egypt.
“We had a far higher freedom ceiling than the other state TV channels, simply because we broadcast in foreign languages,” she explained. “We got away with a lot simply because the government felt that this would give a semblance of free speech and democracy. The average Egyptian was not watching us, so it was ok.”
But this was different.
“I felt trapped as a journalist,” she continued. “Here was history in the making in my own backyard, just minutes away from the TV building where I worked and I wasn’t able to tell the story.”
When Amin next drove into work on February 2, she found the streets lined with army checkpoints in anticipation of a protest scheduled to take place in front of her own TV building, a short walk from Tahrir Square.
“Instead of going into the studio, I took a right turn into Tahrir and decided right there and then that I would stay,” she said. “I sent my boss a text message saying, ‘Forgive me, I won’t be coming back. I’m on the side of the people.’
“It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. I was now free to stay in Tahrir and tell the world the story that had to be told.”
Her high-profile resignation ended up making the headlines and she gave interviews to a number of international networks.
“As soon as I announced my resignation, my phone did not stop ringing,” she said. “Al-Jazeera asked me if I wasn’t afraid of the consequences and I didn’t realise that they were talking about a possible backlash from the regime. I answered, ‘No, I’m a safe distance away from the Molotov cocktails.’”
Amin explained that the regime’s media had been key in helping the besieged Muburak cling to power.
“State broadcasters wield tremendous power in Egypt,” she said. “A lot of people rely on government TV, and nobody believed any different, even my own mother. People were genuinely surprised to learn what was really happening.”
Nonetheless, she said that during her long career she had been able to legitimately carry out her work as a reporter, except while covering some aspects of domestic affairs.
“The only times I felt restricted was during elections, when I felt there was a pro-government line,” she said, recalling one example from a live show during the last national ballot.
“I was on air interviewing a member of parliament by phone and I asked if he was satisfied with the Coptic representation in parliament,” she said. “The phone abruptly went dead and my co-presenter, Mohamed Abdel Rehim, apologised on air for my question, saying he didn't agree with me. I was terribly embarrassed - for him.”
Amin said she had not been deterred from pursuing her own path, despite some conflict with her superiors.
“I would constantly argue with the complaints and criticism from my editors after every bulletin and, in the end, they just let me do as I pleased,” she said. “They sort of gave up on me finally, realising I would not be converted. But I was not well liked and they were so glad to be rid of me.”
Indeed, many of her former colleagues have found it hard to accept her apparent betrayal of the former regime.
“I've been met with some extreme hostility,” she said. “The day Mubarak stepped down it was a huge relief to be outside the state TV building while the rest of my colleagues were inside the building and not allowed out. But I’ve been labelled a traitor by many.”
Amin, who is now working as a freelance reporter for a number of international news outlets, says that the state-run media’s relation to the revolution remains uncomfortable.
“Everybody knows that there's a fierce counter-revolution happening,” she said. “Mubarak’s men are trying to stir up trouble and sectarian unrest, to prove his claim that ‘it’s either me or chaos.’
“State TV has been focusing a lot on this,” she noted. “It's like they’re trying to terrorise the public into believing that this is the only alternative.”
Amin said that it was vital that the Egyptian administration and its media apparatus be fundamentally reformed, adding, “Now we just have to make sure there are alternatives.”
Zoe Holman is an IWPR contributor.
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