Mission Journal: Who is a journalist in Egypt?

Egyptian journalists, besieged by punitive lawsuits and under threat, agree that under President Mohamed Morsi “there is no press freedom, only the courage of journalists,” as editor Ibrahim Eissa put it. What they can’t agree on is–in a climate of freewheeling, mutable media–who exactly is a journalist? 

During a CPJ mission to Cairo last week to assess conditions and plan our advocacy, we met with over a dozen journalists. I asked all of them to define the difference between journalism and activism in a climate in which objectivity is impossible. Most said it was a useless exercise. Eissa, who co-founded the first post-revolution TV station, appropriately named Tahrir TV, first sold his stake, then quit when the station changed its editorial line. He edits a daily newspaper, also called Tahrir, and is a regular commentator on TV. He is facing various charges including “insulting religion.”

“As a journalist, your job is to seek the truth and defend your freedom and that makes you an activist in this environment,” Eissa said. “You will confront the government simply trying to defend your rights as a journalist. So you are not changing your description–you are just operating in a different state.”

Political talk-show host Dina Abdel Fattah agrees. She is facing nearly 300 lawsuits and was forced to quit her job, also at Tahrir TV, after interviewing members of a violent youth group called the Black Bloc. “Maybe there are no borders between journalism and activism,” she said. “We are all Egyptians and this is our country.”

Her fellow talk-show host, Reem Maged, gained acclaim for standing with the protesters in Tahrir Square. Today, she faces charges of “disseminating false information about judges through the media.”  She tries her best to draw a distinction between her on-air journalistic persona and her participation in political protests. “I consider myself a journalist, but in the street I’m an activist and I have positions,” she said. “It’s really difficult to separate the two.”

Meanwhile, the most popular journalist in Egypt is not really a journalist at all. Bassem Youssef is a satirist and talk-show host in the style of Jon Stewart. He mocks President Morsi mercilessly, and through his racy and scathing commentary and skits, pushes the bounds of freedom of expression. The irony of a political satirist facing charges of “insulting the president” and “reporting false news” cannot be overstated.

The inability to draw a line between journalism and activism has significant implications, not only in Egypt but throughout the Middle East. After Cairo, we flew to Doha to attend a workshop hosted by the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.  The three-day event brought together press freedom groups from throughout the Middle East. One of our biggest challenges was agreeing on who we should help and defend–particularly in Syria, where local human rights groups include “media activists” in their tallies of journalists killed.

CPJ does not have a rigid definition of what constitutes journalism. We look at each case in context, examine the person’s work, and make an informed judgment. It’s a process that has worked well until now. If it’s gotten to the point where mainstream journalists in Egypt no longer make a distinction between journalism and activism, then the boundaries are blurring so quickly they may soon become impossible to discern.