Foreign journalists working in Egypt have faced a hard time field-reporting in the past year. Not what you think, but the authorities may be the least suspected culprit behind this drama. It’s unfortunatley the popular perception indoctrinated into the minds of many citizens by way of populist xenophobic state propaganda.
Since Mubarak’s second speech back on February 1st, 2011, state media outlets have been whipping up xenophobic propaganda. Essentially, they accused “foreign elements” of formenting unrest, labelled the protesters as supporters of a “foreign” agenda, blamed “foreign” media for “defaming Egypt’s image abroad”, and every once in a while their news ticker carried an often-rephrased version of stories of “Israeli spies” being caught by the army who were holding camera and other advanced equipment. In short, right before that day any foreign-looking, mostly white-, person walking down the street was faced with welcome-to-Egypt remarks. After the speech, they were being searched and asked for their passports.
To counter that feeling, many foreign reporters, except very very few, had the required social skill to manage the situation.
The usual drama evolves around a foreign reporter surrounded by lots of bystanders who are questioning his/her identity. No logic or argument is carried in their discourse except the heavily-induced suspicion that the journalist is a spy. Most probably an Israeli spy !
So here are the tips:
You are about to get mobbed if you didn’t leave the area immediately. No argument is adviced with the mob because they don’t use logic. Neither you should look scared when pulling out.
Look as smiling, humble, and ordinary person. An American photographer friend of mine almost never got mobbed at any situation in the past year. The reason is: he is always smiling, initiates a small Arabic talk as he enters a new environment, and he looks ordinary. Being the international correspondent you wish to be on the field may not happen if you are stiff, condescending, not smiling, or wearing an extravagant type of designer suits.
Best of all, manage the people ahead. Most importantly a fixer’s job, the skill to be able to understand the people’s behavior, attitude, murmurs, and culture around you will help alleviate any potential conflict. The best scenario is to be able to initiate and socialize with the people and don’t let them put you in the reaction bubble. After convincing them of the impact, reason, and importance of your work for them, you will be able to get them on your side. They are the only ones who are able to defend and protect you from other hasslers. In fact they can get you further connected to sources or characters you never thought you would find for your story.
Minimize equipment, if possible. Because xenophobic hassle is not much about being foreign than being media, camera phobia must be dealt with. As technology has offered us much smaller and practical options, no need arises for large camera crews on the field. The correspondent, the cameraman, and the producer are enough. The cable fetish accompanying a sound man and exotically large tripods can make you very noticeable as you move.
If a heated mob starts to gather, cut your plans short for that area. Start the countdown to leave as this happens. The more you stay in the area, if you became a hostile target, the more the situation becomes increasingly hard to resolve. Keep moving as much as you can.
Never get angry, and never show as very weak. Cooperate with the people as much as you can. Never be confrontational. Never shout or insult even if they cursed you. Rule one always is to pull out as soon as possible.
Have your car and driver ready and attentive to move in a second. Inform your driver to be by the car and alert for your coming. If the car has automatic doors, make it manual so that you can open it yourself easily if you had to run to it. The car needs to be parked in an area that makes it easy for it to move right away. The driver must be professional enough not to get angry or argumentative at all with the people.
Egyptians have a huge concern for their image abroad. Filming trash on the streets is the most famous sensitivity. Don’t film long bread queues. Same with broken sewage water on the streets. If you come across as interested to shoot something that really looks nice, the people will like it and see your urge to view their country in a fine image.
Heading to a local area, you must be under the patronage of a local. For locals, their local friend plays the role of a verifier to who you are and why you are there. He will also be able to secure your entry and exit in the area. He will be the real fixer in that situation. By a very local area, I meant a village, a suburb, or a poor neighborhood.
Share something personal about you that can be a commonality with the locals. This is the best ice breaking. A family anecdote, personal belief or opinion, way of clothing, personal preferences, etc.
The list can run longer, but these are the general indispensable tips for foreign reporters in Egypt.
Generally, a foreign reporter needs to be familiar with the local culture not through “reading about the Middle East” but through talking to peers who have been there. They should also adhere to the word of their local assistant because they have been born and raised in the country.
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