Washington Post correspondent and Duke alumnus Craig Whitlock is trying to write a story—a story with no sequence of events, no confirmed setting and no semblance of certainty. And he is doing so under a constant cloud of impending danger.
Stationed in Cairo as one of three correspondents for the Washington Post, Whitlock’s job is to follow the ever-evolving anti-government protests that began Jan. 25. Between filing numerous daily updates for the Post’s website and preparing stories for the next day’s paper, the former editor of The Chronicle described his 16-to-18 hour days as busy and unpredictable. With journalists falling victim to targeted violence by pro-government forces each day, he said he never really knows what to expect when he steps into the field.
“You don’t know what situation you are going to walk into,” said Whitlock, Trinity ’90. “You don’t know what pro-[President Hosni] Mubarak thugs are coming and out of what corner so you have to prepare yourself for every possibility. It is better this week than last, but it is unpredictable.”
In an attempt to suppress the flow of information coming across Egyptian borders, forces in favor of Mubarak have implemented a targeted campaign of violence and harassment against foreign journalists that has drawn the censure of the U.S. government. CNN correspondents like Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour, as well as journalists from other networks like Al Jazeera and BBC, have experienced acts of violence and harassment. In total, the Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded 140 direct attacks against corespondents since Jan. 30.
Sahar Amer, professor of Arabic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a native Egyptian, said these acts of violence are inexcusable and must stop.
“I think it is terrible and absolutely unacceptable under any circumstance to show any sort of violence or any attempt to silence the media,” she said. “If the government in Egypt has done that, it specifically speaks toward the fear they have concerning the power of the media and the huge impact they have and the responsibility they have to tell the rest of the world what is going on.”
Leila Elmergawi, who is half Egyptian and treasurer for Duke’s Muslim Student Organization, agrees. In an effort to express allegiance with the protesters in Cairo, she organized a peaceful vigil in front of the Chapel Tuesday and wrote a petition in support of media freedom in Egypt. Elmergawi, who is pursing a masters degree in arts and liberal studies, said local journalists in Egypt have been operating under these conditions for a long time. Egypt has been under a “state of emergency,” which allows the government to arrest citizens without charge, hold prisoners indefinitely and restrict freedom of expression, since 1981.
“The local media in Egypt had been oppressed for years,” Elmergawi wrote in an e-mail. “Journalists lost the morality of their trade in order to put food on the table in fear of losing their lives. Egyptians now are not afraid anymore, and all those journalists and reporters are going out in the streets trying to present the truth that they always had to hide.”
Her petition received 43 signatures, but Abdullah Antepli, Duke’s Muslim chaplain, said their campaign will not stop at the Chapel steps.
“The violence is inhumane—it’s despicable and it is completely unacceptable,” he said. “We would really like to get this petition to go to the United States government through local representatives because a significant part of the problem is our foreign policy.”
Sophomore Max Kagan said he views the violence as nothing but a transparent ploy for Mubarak to cling to power. An Arabic major, Kagan was in Egypt last summer for DukeEngage and noted how difficult it must be for reporters to work under such repressive conditions.
“The media is always an interesting force in Egypt,” he said. “I think Al Jazeera has done a really good job of reporting, especially considering how hard it is to report and how many places they aren’t allowed into.”
Despite the obstacles reporters face, Whitlock said the violence has not negatively affected the flow of information. In fact, he said, the violence has been counterproductive to pro-government forces’ efforts to quiet foreign reporters and helped bring more attention to the situation in Egypt.
Whitlock added that as the protests have continued, the Egyptian military has become more active, working to suppress pro-Mubarak civilian violence but also detaining journalists and taking away their equipment. Although Whitlock himself has not experienced any military interference, he said two of his colleagues were detained for security purposes. Ironically, he said, he feels most unsafe when he sees security forces.
“On Tahrir Square [the epicenter of the protests], you feel pretty safe,” Whitlock said. “The demonstrators against Mubarak are very friendly and engaging and they want their story to be told. But when you see the police and military around, you don’t know how they will react. It is the government forces now that are harassing journalists. You have to watch your step.”
Phil Bennett, Eugene C. Patterson professor of the practice of journalism and public policy and former managing editor of The Washington Post, said such governmental tactics are nothing new. But what makes the situation in Egypt unique, he said, is the wide spectrum of media sources now reporting and changing the way information is received.
“Vicious attacks on the press like those in Egypt make reporting hard and hazardous, but they don’t silence the story anymore,” Bennett said. “What seems new in Egypt is a broad band of media, involving foreign journalists and Egyptian citizens, pushing news and information through too many channels for the state to control the ‘off’ switch.”
Whitlock too refuses to be turned off. He said even though he may be susceptible to violence, he finds it exciting to watch the fast-paced political story he is trying to tell unfold right before his eyes.
“There is absolutely nothing scripted about this,” Whitlock said. “It is incredible for journalists who get to cover news like that.”
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