By Fatemah Farag
"We need safety gear. Every time the reporters go out on the street they wind up getting hurt. We are telling the women reporters to get off the street by 11pm, but the guys are out till 4am. Should we buy the safety gear?"
The words came in a disturbing rush. It was late last night, and Tamer ElMahdi, executive editor of Welad Elbalad Mansoura, a community paper run by our company, was briefing me on the situation of the team covering events in a town that in the past few days has been at the centre of escalating violence.
Gone are the days when journalists armed themselves with an onion (to counter the effects of tear gas) and good sneakers. Today, we are taking gas masks, and – if you can get them – bullet proof jackets.
Among the casualties that ElMahdi listed were two reporters who suffered shotgun wounds in the face, repeated beatings of another two reporters and, in one case, a reporter who was doused in gasoline and threatened that he would be lit up.
Later in the evening, after our call, ElMahdi himself was rendered unconscious on the street after being bombarded by teargas.
"It's really tough," explained Mona Basha, managing editor of Welad Elbalad Mansoura. "We don't have time to figure out where the violence is coming from."
In some instances, the attackers were security forces; in others, people that the reporters could identify as members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Mansoura; and in others, unidentified perpetrators.
I guess in today's Egypt, anyone can take a shot at a reporter and get away with it. In 2012, and on the RSF Press Freedom Index, Egypt fell from its already low ranking by 39 points to position 166 – just ahead of Laos, Belarus, China and Syria.
We have all mourned the death of journalist Al-Hosseini Abu Dief, who died last December as a result of a rubber bullet to the head at close range when he was covering clashes outside the presidential palace in Cairo. We follow with apprehension the multitude of cases that are being brought up in courts to hold journalists and freedom of speech liable and criminal.
Who has been held to account for violence against journalists? Oh. Sorry. No one.
While we are all, as media professionals, aware of the deteriorating scene, not enough attention is given to the amount of violence and risk involved in local – out-of-Cairo by community media workers – reporting. More and more is happening outside the capital city and media organisations, time and again, access local news sources.
They never seem to ask: at what cost is this information obtained?
And while journalists will sit in conferences, sessions and newsrooms and debate the relationship between "mainstream" and "citizen" journalists, at the end of yesterday in Mansoura there was one reality: there were the people on the frontlines getting the story. Labels counted for very little.
Local journalists in Egypt have long been the weakest link in a highly centralised news-production apparatus. Poorly paid in comparison with many of their Cairo colleagues, they are rarely formally appointed to news organisations for which they work, regularly retaining that ever-elusive title: 'stringer.'
Accordingly, local journalists rarely receive Journalist Syndicate membership – a requirement, by the way, if you are going to legally call yourself a "journalist" in Egypt.
These facts result in their working without sufficient legal/institutional protection. When push comes to shove, the argument that "they are not legally journalists" can be put on the table.
Most local journalists have not received much training. This trend is shifting as "local media" becomes a new buzzword in the realm of media development. And while local media workers may have better access to training these days, the questions of how consistent, how relevant and who is getting it – in some cases over and over again – have yet to be satisfactorily addressed.
And with media ownership legally restricted and effectively kept in the constraints of the government and the wealthy, most local journalists do not have access to independent, community media outlets with which to forge a future.
President Mohamed Morsi had promised, shortly after his June 2012 election, that "no one will touch press freedom." I hope nobody is too disappointed with the track record of the government to date. In Mansoura, nobody was expecting much anyway.
The adage "All politics is local" is only true in a democracy, but in the current Egyptian context, local politics have proven key to the realisation of the goals of human rights, equality and democracy. The plight and potential of local media is part and parcel of this context.
As media professionals, we will continue to work hard against the further deterioration of our right to a respectful and safe work environment. To accept less does not only compromise those who work in the field, but the right of society to a media that plays a role in providing credible information and public oversight.
Achieving the goal of independent and proficient media in Egypt – like that of achieving democracy – probably begins with protecting, strengthening and championing our weakest link.
Fatemah Farag is the founder and director of Welad Elbalad Media Services Ltd.
This article was first published in ahram online on 3 March 2013.