New Matilda contributor’s Austin Mackell’s first public reaction to his sudden international fame last week invoked an old journalistic cliché: "FIRST RULE OF JOURNALISM: Don’t become the story (actually it is more of a guideline)." The Australian journalist posted this on his Twitter feed just after his release from custody in Egypt.
Last week, Mackell was held for over two days in Egyptian police custody, along with translator Aliya Alwy and US PhD student Derek Ludovici. He is now being investigated on charges of provoking locals in the northern Egyptian city of Mahalla to protest. He had been dispatched by New Matilda to interview union leaders and striking workers on the first anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s exit from power.
This week, the Australian journalist has become an international cause célèbre. He’s been the subject of petitions calling on the Australian government to publicly comment on the case. And his case has been written up in media reports in at least five languages.
The Egyptian police investigation against Mackell is continuing. The New Matilda contributor confirmed late on Sunday, "the charges have been laid, a travel ban has been in place while the police investigate". Mackell returned home to Cairo after being released last week to find his locks changed. He says he’s been subject to repeated rounds of negative publicity in the Egyptian state media that claim he is a foreign spy.
Mackell says that on his return he was personally threatened by a local youth who had been riled up by the negative media reports he’d read. Mackell is now staying with friends because he "doesn’t feel safe" in his Cairo suburb. He wants Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to speak out, because his case "from the start has been about media, about creating a false story to discredit unionists".
Mackell’s case was covered widely in Australia last week. Fewer European outlets reported on his detention — though there were some prominent reports about the circumstances surrounding the Australian journalist’s arrest.
Belgian Francophone public station RTL highlights Mackell’s claims that he overheard "prisoners being tortured in neighbouring cells". "Nothing can stop them [torturing people]," the radio station quotes Mackell as saying.
Meanwhile French media blog Category.net reprinted a statement from press-freedom campaign group Reporters San Frontières on Mackell’s case, which called the charges against him "a politico-judicial intrigue".
While the NGO "welcomed" news of Mackell’s release pending the ongoing police investigation, its statement goes on to "condemn" his arrest as a "violation of the right to report, bringing to mind the fact that Egypt has fallen 39 places" in the organisation’s world press freedom ranking this year.
Egypt is now in 167th position in that ranking, the statement notes — just two places ahead of staunch dictatorship Belarus, and behind Somalia, which has been in civil war for decades.
More generally, RSF’s ranking is uncomfortable reading for Middle East correspondents. It finds that while the region’s population has been demonstrating for greater civil liberties, the region’s governments have been increasing restrictions on journalists trying to report events freely and fairly.
Joshua Maricich is an American journalist based in Cairo, who was based in Yemen at the start of the Arab Spring in March 2011. The freelancer, a contributor to Berlin-based foreign correspondent syndicate Associated Reporters Abroad, was deported after taking photographs of Yemeni protestors.
"We were never given the official line as to why we were kicked out," Maricich told New Matilda. "One morning at seven, the secret police raided our apartment and took us to immigration," he said. "We were held for a few hours and then they told us, ‘you have one hour to pick up your belongings and get on a plane to anywhere but Yemen’," Maricich said.
The journalist believes that he and his colleagues were deported as a "preventive" measure: "Four days later, security forces opened fire and killed over 45 people."
Meanwhile, Mackell was not the only journalist arrested in the Middle East last week. Three Tunisian journalists were arrested on Wednesday after publishing a photo of a naked woman on the cover of the paper they work for, Attounsia, reports French daily Liberation. "The three were held in custody overnight at the headquarters of the service for the protection of morals," reports the paper.
Attounsia had reprinted a photo of a Tunisian soccer star with his model girlfriend taken from the German edition of GQ, continues the paper’s dispatch from Tunis. Yet, claims Liberation, while nude shots of footballers and models are punished in Tunisia, "the transgressions of religious radicals don’t appear to be being pursued with quite as much severity". Thus, those who vandalised the house of a television tycoon whose station had broadcast French film Perspépolis, a French cartoonist’s account of her upbringing in 1980s Islamist Iran, remain unpunished.
And Austin Mackell is not even the only Western journalist facing charges in the region. Two freelance Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, remain in an Ethiopian prison over six months after they were arrested with rebel forces and charged with terrorism.
Persson and Schibbye spent over 100,000 Swedish kroners (EUR 11,000) organising the trip to the East African nation, where they were investigating allegations that Swedish oil company Lundin Petroleum was involved in corruption and human rights abuses there. They were arrested and held on terrorism charges in June last year and they’re still there now.
The Swedish government last week called for Persson and Schibbye’s release in a motion tabled in parliament, reports Stockholm daily Svenska Dagsbladet. The motion was tabled despite the controversial links between Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Lundin; Bildt was a shareholder and board member at the time those alleged human rights abuses occurred.
The motion came just days after Swedish lawyer and ombudsman Thomas Olsson claimed that the two never came into contact with the rebels — and that their capture was "staged" by Ethiopian authorities, who didn’t allow the meeting of the journalists with rebels to go ahead in the first place, according to Svenska Dagsbladet.
One year after a wave of revolutions spread across North Africa, press freedom remains a tricky topic in North and East Africa. While those we spoke to agree that some progress has been made, they said it that this progress had been made despite governments, and not because of them.
And this fact still makes reporting fairly and factually from the Middle East one of the toughest challenges in the trade.
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