Seasoned journalist Shahira Amin on her new book and what it takes to stand in the face of a restrictive media system.
written and photographed by Frank E. Bartscheck II
Shahira Amin was the deputy head and senior anchor of Egyptian state-owned Nile TV for 18 years. Her resignation quickly became worldwide news as a result of a single tweet.
Amin unwittingly found herself at the center of an international media storm at the height of the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Nile TV had prevented her from reporting on the massive popular uprising that was taking place in Tahrir Square. Dissatisfied with the censorship, Amin resigned and joined the protest, “I felt free and I went to Tahrir,” she recalls.
Azza Sami, a journalist formerly with Ahram Weekly, was also at Tahrir Square and asked Amin why she hadn’t brought her camera crew to report on the massive protest. Amin replied she “had quit just a few hours ago and I am here in Tahrir as an Egyptian national, not as a journalist.” Sami immediately tweeted out this interesting subplot within the major revolution storyline. The tweet rapidly made a buzz on the Internet. Almost as quickly, major networks around the world were calling Amin to request interviews. Her stand against censorship brought with it an unexpected new level of international fame. However, Amin felt her decision to resign, “would be the end of my career” as a journalist.
Amin’s ethical stand against censorship did not end her career, to the contrary. Since her decision to resign, “I have never been busier, actually,” states Amin. Directly after her resignation she began writing for Index on Censorship, a website dedicated to free expression in media and civil rights. “[Ashraf Khalil, an Egyptian journalist and author who worked for Index on Censorship] asked me to write an article [detailing] why I had resigned,” specifies Amin. The website’s editors liked her work and asked her to continue writing, which she has done for the last four years.
Amin also decided to go back to Nile TV when they offered her another job after the fall of Mubarak, hosting the weekly show, In The Hot Seat. “Two months later I decided to go back to produce a weekly show, not as deputy head anymore and not to read the news because someone else writes it,” explains Amin. The weekly show allows Amin to have autonomy over content, which covers a wide variety of current issues that affect the region. The show specifically focuses on gender and economic issues and is beginning to highlight success stories. However, her weekly show is vetted prior to broadcast. “I have faced censorship a few times, but not too many,” says Amin. “I’ve steered away from politics because I don’t want the show censored.”
More recently, Amin has begun the arduous task of writing a book recounting her time at Nile TV, including behind the scenes of some of the most prominent interviews she conducted. The content covers the rise of her career up through and including her quitting Nile TV. She walked a journalistic tightrope for many years between her CNN International and Nile TV broadcasts, while attempting to maintain journalistic integrity in the face of a restrictive media atmosphere. “I knew the tipping point would come, but I didn’t know when, and it came during the revolution,” says Amin.
But Amin maintains her book is not just, “my own story, but I also examine the media situation and women’s issues before and after the revolution.” Utilizing first-hand experiences on the frontlines of breaking stores, including, “the virginity tests, the interview with Gilad Shalit and what occurred before, during and after,” Amin weaves her personal stories through the lens of recent Egyptian history. Her personal experiences will add interesting insight into modern Egyptian events in a way most cannot. “I was probably the only Egyptian journalist to have sat down with all the three presidents, Mubarak, Morsi and Sisi,” says Amin.
The book will be published in English and Amin is hopeful it will be finished by the end of this year. With the first two chapters completed, Amin is thoroughly enjoying the process and excitedly anticipating its publication.
Amin is no stranger to the machinations of Egypt’s media machine and says the road since her resignation has not been without its difficulties. Since 2013, “I have had several complaints filed against me,” states Amin, whose weekly show was taken off of the air for two months because “one of my colleagues filed a complaint stating I had implied [Morsi’s removal] was a military coup,” claims Amin. While the show was off the air Amin was investigated, subsequently cleared of the accusation and the show resumed airing. “I had not mentioned the word coup, I just described the situation,” argues Amin.
Egyptian-based broadcaster Lilian Daoud recently encountered similar difficulties as a result of a personal tweet. “She [Daoud] has been very objective and balanced and almost everyone else isn’t,” alleges Amin, who feels the majority of the media in Egypt “attack, vilify and incite. That is the kind of journalism that has often been practiced.”
All too often journalists in Egypt and the region are forced to perform a difficult balancing act, encountering challenges including sexism, discrimination and violence. The occupation has become a daunting choice for those deciding to pursue journalism, especially for women. Amin is interested in breaking these taboo subjects. “I have heard first-hand accounts of women who have been subject to sexual violence. I am gathering these personal experiences and eyewitness accounts,” says Amin.
Interestingly, there seems to be a disconnect between the older and younger generation of Egyptian women. “Just a few days ago I was in Alexandria at a women’s empowerment group. Within one working group we were examining the way forward, moving from recommendation to actual empowerment on the ground. A lot of the older generation kept blaming women for the way they dress. So we have this generational gap that needs to be overcome,” believes Amin.
Egyptian reporter Lamia Hamdin highlighted an interesting case of discrimination against women, specifically mothers, within journalism. While interviewing a subject in the street in downtown Cairo, a passerby noticed Hamdin cradling her 20-month-old son. He snapped a photograph and uploaded it to social media. The photo was widely shared, quickly went viral and elicited a wide range of reactions in support and against her actions. Ultimately, Hamdin had no choice because her son was sent home from nursery ill and her husband was out of the country on business. She was the only one available to care for her son, yet she still had to work. More importantly, she was off camera during the entire interview so it was essentially a non-issue.
However, that did not stop it from sparking a vigorous debate within the Egyptian media. As a mother, Amin experienced similar circumstances early on in her career. While working in Abu Dhabi, Amin did not have the luxury of having her family nearby to help out with her children. Amin would take her youngest daughter, who was three years old at the time, to work with her at the radio station in Abu Dhabi. Her daughter knew when the red light was on—indicating the microphone was live and “mommy is working”—she was not allowed to speak. One day, her daughter just couldn’t hold it anymore, literally. “The red light was on and she came to me next to the microphone and said, ‘Mommy, I need to pee-pee,’” Amin recalls with a laugh, “All of Abu Dhabi heard this!”
Amin firmly believes the only way to eliminate taboos is to highlight them and create support for those affected. To this end, the German news organization Deutsche Welle recently held a symposium aimed at cultivating new approaches to overcome the myriad of problems journalists may encounter. Amin was pleased the conference was organized, well attended and that some in attendance decided to form a journalists’ union for woman to offer support and exchange ideas. “Woman journalists have it even harder than men because of the sexual violence against them,” says Amin, who encouraged the development of the novel idea by offering to mentor the young female journalists. “I have about six [young woman journalists] that come to me for advice or just ring me when they have a problem.”
Amin’s mentoring is widely respected due to her vast experience within the world of Egyptian media. She was one of the first journalists to break the FGM story on Egyptian TV. “My boss would not broadcast my news reports. I had been to Asyut, I had the girl telling her story,” recalls Amin, who had to fight hard so her story could see the light. “Eventually the story was broadcast and I received a call from State Security inquiring why I was running stories that tarnish Egypt’s image. … [When the FGM law was issued in 2008], I received a certificate from Moushira Khattab [an Egyptian human rights activist, former politician and diplomat]stating that my stories on FGM helped to bring about the national law. I still have that certificate,” Amin says with pride in her voice. “I keep telling the young journalists, once the story is out, it is no longer taboo and that is how you make a difference.”
Amin believes there “is a willingness on the part of the younger generation to practice good journalism. Not my generation of journalists because the few that were credible and objective have quit the scene.” She recently watched a group of young journalists who were invited to sit with President Sisi and were interviewed directly after the encounter. “I was so impressed. They were critical and said this is our job to hold the government and people to account. I was sitting there clapping. This is what I want to see. … There has to be change and we are coming close to the tipping point. I am optimistic.”