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Earlier this month INSI carried out safety training for 20 newswomen in Cairo. INSI's Helena Williams reports on her first trip to Egypt's capital.
I visited Cairo for the first time last week as a project coordinator for INSI’s latest safety training for female journalists. It was a trip I was keen to go on: Egypt has been a focal point for INSI’s projects and safety work this year and I wanted to get on the ground.
I had kept an eye on the news, examined online forums for journalists working in Egypt and carried out a risk assessment. I heard about news crews who were detained at the airport for trying to carry their equipment through customs, and read reports of journalists being attacked and harassed while covering demonstrations – because they were working for ‘biased’ news organisations, because they were thought to be ‘spies’, or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It sounded like a war zone.
Before our recce of the area around Tahrir Square on the 6th of October, I felt apprehensive. It was the site of so much unrest, and the topic of so many of INSI’s safety advisories. It was also the 40th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli war, and the Muslim Brotherhood had called for demonstrations in the area.
Previous demonstrations had been deadly, and this one was no different – that day, at least 55 people died in clashes between the police and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. But the violence was localised. That afternoon, we had walked across the Qasr al-Nil bridge leading to Tahrir Square and watched pro-military demonstrators celebrating, waving flags and chanting. Military helicopters and fighter jets flew overhead in a spectacular show of force. Although it’s classed as a ‘hostile environment’, Cairo was not the full-scale war zone that I’d been led to believe.
We felt safe among the crowds that afternoon, but the risks vary according to time and place. Six journalists have died in Egypt so far this year, five while covering demonstrations. Countless others have been injured and intimidated. And female journalists have been sexually assaulted. Two and a half years and two governments down the line, this abuse has not stopped in Cairo.
When we first publicised free female-specific safety workshops earlier this year we were overwhelmed with interest. Soon, the course was oversubscribed – a testimony to how vital this training is.
Some of the participants were new to journalism, others were veteran reporters. Some had contracts with major news organisations while others worked for local media outlets or were freelancers. Most of them had never had hostile environment training before.
We were able to cover a range of risks, practice scenarios and have frank discussions about the women’s concerns, which may not have been able to take place if their male colleagues were present. In the private space of a hotel conference room, they shared their experiences.
“There are pros and cons to being a woman journalist,” one British video journalist who had been covering Egypt for several years told me.
“On the soft side of news, people can be keen to help you and are kinder. But in a hard core situation you’re more vulnerable. You can be a sexual target.
“The fact is, we all get sexually harassed on a daily, even hourly basis. There’s been a shift in the last few years where being a female journalist can really make you a tool to intimidate others.”
“We face double the risks that men face,” another Egyptian journalist agreed, describing how she was harassed in Tahrir square even when she asked her brother and a male friend to accompany her as bodyguards. She has since stopped covering that beat.
We heard about how these women tried to mitigate risks on the ground, and shared our own advice about how to go about covering a story in the safest way possible.
Being aware of where, when and why protests are likely to kick off means that you can plan a story, and get it from a safer angle. Carrying a medical pack, and knowing how to use the trauma bandage in it to stop a heavy bleed, can give you enough time to get your injured colleague to a hospital. Knowing to tilt an unconscious person’s head back by a couple inches so that they don’t choke on their own tongue can mean the difference between life and death.
One American freelance broadcast journalist said she was fortunate to be established enough to turn down jobs she deemed were too risky. But sadly, this is not always the case for some freelancers who feel under pressure to take huge risks to try to make a name for themselves – and who often cannot afford commercial safety training.
Last week’s workshops will not stop the harassment or the attacks, but it will help mitigate some of the risks women journalists face in the field. And we are planning more training for male and female journalists later this year. By arming them with the knowledge to prepare for a dangerous assignment, and understanding how crowds, security forces and weapons work, we hope that the reporters we train can weigh up the risks versus the reward of chasing a story, and then confidently carry out their work.
Photo: Tahrir Square (INSI/Caroline Neil)