The peril of the pen

Nerine Corbett investigates journalists behind bars.

When my uncle called in April 2011 to say that my cousin, freelance journalist Austin Mackell, had been arrested in Egypt, was being detained in an unknown location, and was facing a five to seven year jail sentence, I was stunned. Risk and danger are, after all, hard to understand, to really weigh up. Although Austin had worked in the Middle East for years and I understood that he was always at risk in an abstract sense, it was never real to me. It was always a risk written in colourful pixels on my TV screen or in the neat words of my Saturday morning paper.

On that day in April, the war, the conflicts, and the terror that Austin had been reporting on way across the globe splintered my relatively safe Australian life. The dangerous world of war journalism became real to me and my family just as it has become real to Peter Greste’s family, and to those who knew and loved the 450 journalists imprisoned, 125 kidnapped, and 144 killed in the last two years in war zones all over the planet.

* * *

It was routine work for Austin that day, heading out to Mahalla from Cairo to hold an interview, accompanied by his Egyptian translator Aliya Alwi and American postgraduate student Derek Ludovici. But April 11 marked the anniversary of Mubarak’s fall and Egypt was under military rule; safety could not be assumed. They were set to meet Kamal Elfayoumi, a union leader and political activist from the area, to interview him for a story about the role of workers’ strikes in Egypt’s explosive uprising.

Austin would later describe the events of the next days as his “nightmare”.

Within minutes of meeting Elfayoumi, the group was mobbed. Desperate and angry, the crowd accused the three of working to destroy Egypt, working to tear apart the livelihoods of the very people whose story they had come to share. Pressed upon by the screaming crowd, the three split with Elfayoumi and returned to their taxi, where their driver, Zakaria, told them his license had been taken by a police officer. Though barely able to see a path through the bodies slamming against the car, the four followed the police to the station where they were invited inside forprotection”.

The police took their remaining identification, asked a few questions and led them to a side room to wait. Elfayoumi came to see what had happened to the group. Although they were repeatedly told that they would be able to leave shortly, the ‘protection’ stretched on. By this point it was clear they were being detained.

A witness appeared claiming they had seen the group inciting violence on the streets. Austin and his colleagues had stood accused of the false claim that they had handed out money to have rocks thrown at the police station. The nightmare had just begun.

* * *

With 1052 journalists killed since 1992, it is clear the position of the press in conflict zones has shifted dramatically. I meet with Dieter Herrmann, Vice President of the Foreign Correspondent’s Association, who tells me he knows of around 20 more deaths, those of internal Afghan journalists, which have not made the statistics. Distressing changes to both the culture of war and the culture of media seem to be putting journalists at increasing risk.

“Nobody cares anymore. Nobody cares if it is a journalist you are killing or somebody else as long as the person is dead. Being a journalist or not a journalist, there is no difference when the bullet comes, so we need protection to do our work,” Herrmann says.

Dr Richard Stanton is a senior lecturer in the School of Letters, Arts and Media at the University of Sydney, and specialist in the politics of war journalism. I ask him if he thinks there is something special about the way war is fought today that endangers journalists. He tells me that decreased structure and support means many journalists and reporters do not have the instruction needed to protect themselves. Stanton states that historically war correspondents had a close relationship with one army. “In the old days cameramen and journalists were embedded with troops. There was a protocol so that they knew the dangers; they were made more aware of the danger of being in the line of fire. Now they are in a position of greater personal risk,” he says. The protection, firepower, medical and tactical support of the armed forces was always on hand if required. That is not the case today.

Austin tells me the shift to interclass, civil conflicts rather than interstate conflicts is also a big contributor. “The conflicts are not between two competing armies each of whom would have journalists safely on their side reporting their narrative. The conflicts are in societies, so journalists are much more in the mix. So much social upheaval is happening at the moment, street fighting is happening and journalists are on the line in a way they wouldn’t have been [before].” Within such contexts, danger zones are much more dynamic. The front line is on all sides, the battle is in the streets and the enemy is no longer clearly signposted. Such conditions leave journalists much more exposed. It is the reality now that the best and often only way to report is from alongside rebel forces, which are not in a position to offer the traditional safety measures afforded to journalists.

Stanton also explains that the blue flak jacket of the press pack is no longer sufficient protection. Not so long ago, simply being a visibly accredited journalist was a shield; it granted immunity. “The role of the press is less respected on either side for the reporting of conflict. Either side in an engagement has less belief in the sanctity and the preservation of the press, and as an independent player in that overall structure,” he says. “[Journalists and camera operators] are now seen as being nearly as dangerous as the combatants themselves.”

Austin agrees, explaining that journalists used to be considered untouchable, but are now free game. “Those liberal values that protected journalists and other people from human rights abuses, that gave us due process and democratic protection, they are being eroded. The increased vulnerability of journalists goes along with the increased vulnerability of aid workers, activists and people in general.”

* * *

For Austin, Alwi, Ludovici, Zakaria and Elfayoumi the game of hide and seek now began. They were moved first to another police station, then the Ministry of Interior building, then once again to a military intelligence facility in Cairo. Any belief that the police were keeping them for protection had long dispersed. Alwi frantically tweeted their movements, lucky to get word out before their phones and laptops were seized, while Austin tried to tell a journalist outside the police station that the charges were unfounded. For the third leg of the journey the group was handcuffed and the three “witnesses” were allowed to taunt them. One, an 11-year-old child, motioned slitting Alwi’s throat, another told Austin “urkab ala moot” which literally translates as “ride to death”.

The real interrogation began in the Ministry of Interior where, 12 hours into his captivity, the police realised that Austin was in the country on a long-expired visa. Austin said that it was here he began to lose his composure, angry at the injustice of being held, at injustices perpetrated all over Egypt, all over the world by those with power against those without it. He was also fearful for himself and even more so for Alwi and Zakaria, the former for her gender and both for their Egyptian nationality. The interrogations began. Austin was pressed about his work and intimidated. Alwi was interrogated far more viciously and was asked about her personal life. Zakaria was beaten.

* * *

Australian media organisations seem to provide little support for their staff working in war zones. Stanton suggests the modern “resource allocation problems” – a chronic issue for the media of the 21st century – means footing the cost of insurance of a translator, of security and being responsible for ransom demands or loss of life is no longer something many media bodies feel they are in a position to do. Rather than send a staff writer to whom they owe wardship, why not rely on stories from freelance writers and stringers who must shoulder the risk and cost themselves? “If you’re prepared to risk your life for chump change, you can see your name in print,” Austin tells me in a worryingly matter-of-fact tone. He goes on to tell me that many media corporations and editors take advantage of the lure of the “big break” for new and inexperienced journalists. “It can be very immoral at times, the way people desperate to get into the industry are being exploited. It’s a bit like the Hollywood casting couch gone wrong. It can be very seedy.”

Australia seems to be falling behind global standards in this respect, for as soon as I speak to Dieter Herrmann he is quick to tell me that Australian journalists are in a very different, less privileged, position than their colleagues in Europe and Britain. He explains European and British media corporations refuse to buy stories from anyone who has not done specific training on how to work in hostile areas, removing the lure of war zone journalism for rookies. The training concentrates on dealing with dangerous situations such as hostage and kidnapping events. Moreover, purchasing stories from journalists travelling alone is disallowed, so in order to sell your story to European or British outlets one must travel in the safety of a pair, at least. Herrmann condemns the situation in Australia as “irresponsible’”. “It’s totally different here in Australia, if you are a journalist and you want to go… you can do that, no problem and if you’re killed, you’re killed.”

* * *

After a cold and hungry night of being left to struggle to sleep in their chairs, each in separate interrogation rooms, the run-around resumed. A few hours of driving in the back of a police truck returned the group to the second station at which they had been held, only to leave again minutes later. Activists from the ‘No to Military Trials’ group had discovered their whereabouts and gathered outside. Despite the authorities’ best efforts to shuffle the group around and avoid such aid the word was out to activists, journalists and lawyers. By the time the five were moved to the prosecutor’s office in Mahalla a group of supporters had amassed and were able to pass through food, the first they had had in nearly 30 hours. Lawyers arrived, and though Austin had no chance to actually confer, his lawyer was able to argue that the witness stories were inconsistent, that there had been a pattern of xenophobic witch-hunts in the recent months. Spirits rose.

It was not long until Elfyoumi and Zakaria were released. Austin, Alwi and Ludovici, however, were taken underground and left in cells that reverberated with the screams of other inmates.

Staff from the Australian embassy eventually reached them, bringing some basic comforts, toilet paper, blankets and pillows – small comforts that, for Austin and Ludovici, allowed them the first chance to sleep in days. Both believed Alwi had been released though this was not the case. When awoken they gathered these few things, sure they were to be moved once more; in fact, pressure from the Australian embassy lawyers and activists saw them finally released.

* * *

Stanton suggests that situations like Austin’s are happening more frequently as a result of technology and the “immediacy of access”. “A soldier with a weapon is also a soldier with a mobile phone, so information is being received a lot faster,” he says. Such increasing competition in the marketplace also means the selling price for stories has fallen. Outlets do not need to pay one journalist $100 for a story when another is waiting in line ready to sell for much less. The monthly pay scale of journalists is only a quarter now of what it was thirty years ago, Herrmann states. Many freelancers report they cannot afford insurance, which can cost $1000 a month, let alone a translator or personal security with these pay grades, and are left with no alternative but to work perilously exposed to the increasingly dangerous conditions.

Others feel pushed to take extra risks for the chance at a scoop. “There is a journalist I knew working in Syria who was asked to do things which put her and her sources in danger by an editor back in the safety of New York, pressured because she was new and young,” Austin says. Similarly, Francesca Borri, an Italian journalist, lamented last year to Columbia Journalism Review that the first direct contact she had from her editor in over a year (“during which I contracted typhoid fever and was shot in the knee”) was when he mistakenly believed she had been arrested in Syria and emailed to ask, “Should you get a connection, could you tweet about your detention?”. Such reports are unsurprising in a media culture that continues to devalue journalist safety in favour of profits and shareholders.

Asking Austin about the pressure to conform seems to hit home. “More people are competing for the same few outlets, plus the lack of job security forces people to look for an editorial line that won’t upset the editors because they can always find someone else, it’s hard to see what power a freelance has in the modern media industry.” Reports become flatter in such a climate, colder. Who can risk shocking or challenging in this situation? Journalists pressured into being biased and safe in their reportage has contributed to the changed perception of press in the field. Difficult and dangerous conditions now undermine the quality of stories reporters are able to tell. It seems a vicious cycle in which those who seek to suppress freedom of information make the only gains.

* * *

Free from confinement though with a travel ban in place, Austin’s face had been circulated as that of a Western spy and he spent weeks moving from couch to couch, unable to return to his home because it had been raided. It would take six months of slow and confounded bureaucracy for the charges to be dropped and him to be able to leave Egypt.

Austin’s story is nowhere near the most worrying or terrible out there; it’s almost tempting to say he got off lightly. We need only take one look at the haunting images of a shackled Peter Greste staring, lost, from behind bars during his trial to understand how much worse things could have been. But Austin and my family’s experience stands testimony to the impunity with which militants, government, anyone with power, can now treat journalists.

Austin says he shares my horrified amazement at the little interest Peter Greste’s case has generated in the Australian media, given he has been held in solitary confinement for months and his trial is being held in a language he does not speak. “Australia’s relative acquiescence is absolutely terrifying. It leaves journalists in a really nasty place.” It is time to recognise just what it takes to bring us news, to tell the stories of distress and destruction and look at what needs to be done to protect those doing so.  In 2014, journalists should no longer be brutalised, maimed or killed in pursuit of the truth.