Reporting from the Arab region: professional or a citizen?

Photojournalists in conflict areas always face the dilemma whether to take photos or interfere in the situation. During the so called Arab Spring local reporters even had a bigger question to answer. Should they be an independent journalist and cover the uprising or should they participate as citizen? That question kept coming back during the lectures at the Reporting Change – Stories form the Arab Region event, held by World Press Photo and Human Right Watch on June 15th in Amsterdam.

Both organizations cooperated to document the changes after the Arab Spring and to support the democratic process in the North African countries. In a way such a cooperation is a challenge, just like photojournalists working with ngo’s. It’s difficult to keep your in dependancy if you are working with an organization that wants to send its own message. They will tell always their side of the story. At the same time it can be a good source for information and an entrance to stories that never could have been told otherwise. For World Press Photo in this case the downside may be that they clearly show on which side they are standing and therefore can loose some of their integrity as an objective organization. That said, project Reporting Change shows the common goal of both organizations, to show the world what is going on.

Annemiek Hoogenboom of the Dutch Postcodeloterij receives the first print of the book Stories of Change - Beyond the Arab Spring. Left Michiel Munneke, right Anna TImmerman.
Annemiek Hoogenboom of the Dutch Postcodeloterij receives the first print of the book Stories of Change – Beyond the Arab Spring. Left Michiel Munneke, right Anna TImmerman.

World Press Photo focused on the training of the visual journalists, as they always do. Human Right Watch (HRW) provided information and footage amongst others. That last part becomes more and more a key element of HRW. The Netherlands Director HRW Anna Timmerman explained that HRW becomes an important source for journalists, especially at the Arab Spring. “Our people live on that area for a long time, and knew who to go to, what the story was and where to find the real information.” Journalists always came to HRW for the facts, she says, but nowadays also for the raw footage. “We make material that everybody can use.”

That material is probably mostly interesting for the foreign media, who cannot send their own professionals to the area. As seen in more areas the news is covered more often by local reporters. The so called stringers are not always proven to be independent enough for journalistic productions, as they have their opinion on the things going on in their country. But even the best professionals struggle with the choice between reporting or participating.

That dilemma was very wel told by the Egyptian TV journalist and host of the very popular talk show ‘Baladna Belmasry’ Reem Maged. In a sometimes emotionally keynote she expresses the ongoing discussion with herself. “When I was on the [Tahrir] square I felt guilty not being on air. When I was on air, I felt guilty not being on the square. Every morning and every time I go to sleep I am asking myself if I took the right decision. The answer is that I don’t know.” Not only she had the discussion with herself, but also with her father who was against the protests and her mother who was pro revolution. Tears almost come when she recalls a phone call with her mother, who said that Maged either should be on air or on the square: “You are not more precious than them or their families.” Maged says her brave mother is lucky. “I am still safe and sound, at least physically and I am free, meaning I am not in prison.”

Egyptian TV journalist Reem Maged (right) is interviewed after her keynote by Arabist and publicist Petra Stienen.
Egyptian TV journalist Reem Maged (right) is interviewed after her keynote by Arabist and publicist Petra Stienen.

The revolution obviously has a great impact on Maged. It is the first time most of the Egyptian, including herself, are facing death for the first time. From a professional point of view Maged believes that journalists have to decide whether they accept to be a tool in the hands of a regime or not. But even if you do, you are supporting the citizens. “It is never about the regime,” she says. “I always say that media is a profession like medicine. If a doctor doesn’t fulfill what he is supposed to do, or he doesn’t respect his profession ethically he can kill. And the same thing also provides for media professionals. Our profession has rules and ethics and we have to respect them whatever the situation is.”

A similar story is said at the play We Have Seen A Revolution, where the words are heard of the young photojournalist Eman Helal form Egypt (played by Maryam Hassouni) and HRW researcher in Libya Hanan Saleh (played by Nazmiye Oral). Helal struggles with working as a photojournalist, wanting to support the protestors and all the hurdles she has to take being a woman in a men’s world. The young photographer only wants to tell the stories. She is seeing how women are hurt and raped during the protests and want to show that to the world, but she faces a lot of resistance by her editors. HRW researcher Saleh also struggles being a woman in a world that is getting more extreme over time. She loves the country and Tripoli especially, despite all the problems it’s one of the reasons she stays. Helal on the other side says Cairo has no beautiful spot anymore and she wants to leave the country, without hope and tired of fighting against the regimes, her freedom and men.

Play 'We have seen a revolution' with Maryam Hassouni as photojournalist Eman Helal and Nazmiye Oral as HRW researcher Hanan Saleh.
Play ‘We have seen a revolution’ with Maryam Hassouni as photojournalist Eman Helal and Nazmiye Oral as HRW researcher Hanan Saleh.

At the end of the play the real Saleh is interviewed on her work, which shows quite a similarity with photojournalism. “You have to keep your eyes and ears open, you can’t loose sense for the real high level of violence.” Just as a photojournalist from a foreign country, the HRW researcher is faces with a totally different world at home. That can be hard to cope with, but Saleh says she choose not to. “The easiest thing is to indulge with these feelings. You almost feel superior coming from a war zone and looking to everybody else. I am actually always happy when I am on a plane to Vienna and get the Austrian newspaper with as headline that a retirement fund is been plussend by 0.0002% or so. It is not about mass slaughter, it’s not about massacre. We need to remind ourselves this is not the norm.”

However the local photojournalists are not able to escape form that reality and step in a more comfortable world. It would be very interesting to know how they live their lives. Especially since one of the goals of Reporting Changes is to show what is going on besides the headlines. Unfortunally the debate with photographers Roger Anis, Oualid Khelifi, Selim Harbi and director of photography for Geo France and one of the trainers on the project Magdelena Herrera was way to short. The photographers showed personal background stories. Important besides the fast news says Herrera: “Local photographers tell the stories which need to be told.” After the second round of answers, time was already running up.

Debate with the photographers and Magdalena Herrera.
Debate with the photographers and Magdalena Herrera.

Nevertheless the event was worthwhile and gave a good impression on the life of reporters and researchers in the Arab region. The final results of the project can be seen on the website ‘Stories of Change – Beyond the Arab Spring’ where really nice multimedia pieces are presented. As Oualid said in the debate multimedia is not just a tool. “Multimedia makes you laugh and cry, but also dance and sing.” Also a book is published because, as leaving director of World Press Photo Michiel Munneke states: “A book is a valuable asset for documentation and gives something back to the photographers.”

Dutch version can be read at PhotoQ

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