Lend A Friend A Gas Mask?


The message came through at 9.36pm: "Help. 41 Nawal St".

Independent journalist Tom Rollins had been worried all evening about his Egyptian flatmate, who'd left in the afternoon for an interview and not returned. Now the search began in earnest.

Calls were put out on Twitter and Facebook for information on the location of this Cairo address and requests for details about a man known only as "Alaa".

A group of journalists set out on foot, braving arrest for being out after the 7pm curfew and struggling to locate number "41" on a street with numbers only up to 28.

Others painstakingly searched for a key phone number that would allow them to contact the abductor, since they couldn't reach the abductee. Still more monitored developments online, keeping family and friends updated. By 12.30am the apartment was found, the journalist returned to safety.

Rollins, himself a relative newcomer to Egypt, said that night proved the power of the network of friends and strangers, joined largely by social media and word of mouth, who threw together an impromptu search when diplomatic hands were tied due to the curfew and the police refused to help.

"There is a community there [in Cairo]and that was quite nice to know, once everything had calmed down. People who were willing to put themselves at risk for other journalists, particularly during curfew. They were all willing to go out onto the streets," he said.

It's natural for people to bond during dangerous situations, but journalists — especially freelancers who don't have an organisation at their back — have more reason than most to help each other in sticky situations because of the unusual risks they take to get a story.

Moreover, smartphones and social media allow journalists, inveterate communicators anyway, to connect publicly like never before, bringing colleagues closer and widening professional networks.

Watch Twitter closely on days when clashes, riots, raids and political demonstrations are happening and you'll see journalists asking after colleagues and describing where they are, partly out of a need to report, partly for information and partly to let people know they're ok.

At an institutional level organisations such as the newly founded Frontline Freelance Register, the Rory Peck Trust, the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, and the International News Safety Institute provide more organised support and training for journalists working in conflict zones.

In this story the journalists and their friends tracked down their colleague within hours. The other side is the long-term campaigns where journalists are beginning to use their networks and media savvy to raise awareness about people in trouble.

Egypt consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Shaimaa Abulkhair, told New Matilda that because of the hostile situation in the country journalists were joining together more often to share information.

She said the days when journalists did not speak of the violence they faced or accepted it as a normal part of their job were over, with more and more speaking out or launching campaigns to help each other.

One such campaign is the Free Tarek and John online mission to have the Egypt government release Canadians Tarek Loubani, a doctor, and John Greyson, a filmmaker, who were on their way to Gaza.

Cairo-based Freelance photojournalist and former student of Greyson, Elisa Iannacone, was one of the first people involved.

Iannacone was woken by a phone call from Canada at 2am on Saturday August 17 asking if she knew where Greyson was. Her first port of call was Facebook, where she asked for contacts and phone numbers of people who could help, before starting to work the phones around 3am.

The first person Iannacone was able to wake was Abulkhair, who began to contact the Canadian authorities in Egypt.

Iannacone's role then changed to one of support for Greyson's family and friends in Canada, and raising awareness as she created the first "Free John Greyson" icon and spread it online.

Greyson and Loubani are still imprisoned in Torah Prison; they were arrested on the day of the Rabaa al-Adeweya and Nahda sit-in crackdowns when they entered a police station to ask for directions to their hotel.

Other campaigns include the Free James Foley campaign, which has been working in earnest since freelance journalist James Foley disappeared in northwest Syria on 22 November, 2012, and one in Cairo that began this week demanding the release of Egyptian freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, arrested during the crackdown on the Rabaa al-Adeweya sit-in and is still in prison.

Elsewhere, organisations have sprung up over the last 20-odd years to assist journalists in conflict zones, with the latest being the Frontline Freelance Register (FFR) this year, an organisation representing journalists working in dangerous environments.

Emma Beal, FFR founder and kiwi freelancer, said concerns about the health, safety and conduct of reporters in the field was growing, especially since freelancers were increasingly integral to news gathering.

"Without the backing of organisations, freelancers often have to rely on each other when they get into trouble and FFR gives them a voice and vehicle to help address their needs," Beal said in an email.

"Colleagues are willing to share safety and security information with each other and this is obviously facilitated by new forms of technology."

Cristina Archetti, senior lecturer in politics and media at Salford university in the UK, agrees but adds that the number of journalists in one place helps maintain those social graces and professional niceties.

Her research into changing technology and foreign correspondents in London, a place considered hostile only by unemployed antipodean backpackers, indicates that the less a place rates on the scale of world attention means fewer journalists, less competition and therefore a more supportive journalistic culture.

This idea of a supportive group of journos who share ideas and sit down to a beer at the end of every day doesn't apply everywhere — this is a competitive business with more and more talented professionals scrapping for column space.

But in dangerous places, where lending a friend a gas mask is not unusual and collaboration via social media can be life saving, journalists are connecting and pulling together in ways that weren't possible in the past.

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