How to cover a protest in Cairo

Tips for freelance journalists planning to cover Cairo


Once a predictable assignment for regional correspondents, Cairo is now an alluring spot for enterprising freelance journalists. Stories are everywhere amid the uncertainty here. More than half of all Egyptians are under the age of 30, truly the springtime of their lives. Everyone is striving for something: bread, work, human rights.

Since the January 25, 2011 revolution, hardly a week passes without demonstrations or civil unrest erupting somewhere in this country of 91 million.

The Black Bloc provoke police near the Shepherd Hotel. The Muslim Brotherhood calls for Million Man Marches. Groups of liberals gather to do the Harlem Shake in front of the Brotherhood’s headquarters. Rival groups fight in front of courts or the presidential palace. Sectarian conflicts erupt near churches.

Tear gas is abundant. Disorienting laser lights are shined into the eyes of police or protesters.

Freelance or on assignment, journalists are in the middle of it all. Many are Egyptian; some are foreign.

Australian journalist Ed Giles is one of several foreign photographers here supplying the front pages of the New York Times, Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald with documentation of post-revolution Cairo.

“What you’re doing is looking for very strong single pictures, and to do that you have to be pretty close to what’s happening. You have to see the expressions on people’s faces and their reactions to what’s happening.”

So how do reporters like Giles, some of whom don’t speak Arabic, stay safe while covering Cairo?

Attend hostile-environment training

TOR International, a London-based company that offers a variety of risk-mitigation courses, trains BBC journalists who are assigned to what BBC terms “medium-high risk” countries.

Lasting anywhere from several days to a week, TOR courses help journalists begin to understand risk mitigation, first aid, how to avoid surveillance, common military and police tactics and more.

Courses are tailored to the area where the journalists are going, from Mali to Afghanistan or Cairo.

“It’s all about planning and understanding,” says Harry Williams-Cole, the managing director of TOR. “Understanding the environment you’re going to be working in and what you’re going there to do… Knowing what the risks are likely to be, and then planning accordingly.”

TOR’s weeklong courses cost around 2,500 British pounds per week. So how is a freelancer to afford such a course?

Apply for grants

Giles won a bursary offered to freelance journalists by the Rory Peck Trust to attend a 2011 hostile-environment training course in Lebanon.

“It's really important to take responsibility for yourself,” Giles says. “The training was something I really wanted to do for a while because I think it's really important to mitigate as much risk as you can. This job is really risky.”

The Rory Peck Trust offered approximately 45 bursaries in 2012 to cover the majority of costs for freelancers to attend accredited hostile-environment training sessions, says Sarah Giaziri, program officer for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Hostile environmental training helps you think of key questions before you go to places that could potentially be dangerous,” she says.

Cairo-based Dutch freelance photojournalist Ester Meerman says she took brief safety courses in journalism school while working for NOS. While in-the-moment shock can sometimes make it hard for journalists to remember their trainings, she says, it is useful to have thought about how to handle situations like arrest or kidnapping – a situation she faced in Cairo last year.

Have health insurance and know the location of hospitals

Mapping local hospitals and being aware of emergency services – or the lack thereof – costs journalists nothing but their time. It is essential information to have on hand should a crisis arrive.

Obtaining insurance before traveling to Cairo might take more time – and money – but it can make a huge difference on the ground.

The level of assistance that injured journalists in crisis who have health insurance receive is far greater than that available to reporters who failed to obtain coverage, Giaziri says.

“Time and time again people don't have a plan, and insurance makes such a big difference when it comes to having the money to get home or cover medical costs.”

Giles says he purchased a policy from Reporters Without Borders for around 280 US dollars. The French not-for-profit offers various insurance schemes to reporters around the world. Rory Peck’s website links to additional insurance providers known for working with freelance journalists.

Some insurance providers may give discounts to journalists who have completed hostile environment training courses.

Interview reporters who have been in the country

Many journalists are happy to share local knowledge that can prepare reporters for conditions on the ground. For example, the level of physical and verbal harassment encountered in Cairo is far higher than in many other countries, says Dutch freelance photographer Meerman.

“I doubt a female reporter would run a serious risk of getting sexually assaulted when covering a protest in the US or Europe,” she says. “For both males and females the verbal abuse is fairly absurd. I only have to take out my camera and nine out of ten times at least one person will come up to me and ask me what I'm doing. 'Why are you taking photos?' 'What are you taking photos of?'

“People will just randomly forbid you to take photos of things and sometimes will even go as far as to obstruct your view or try and take your camera away. I know of many cases of people getting escorted to a nearby police station by the police just for taking photos of random things on the street. That wouldn't happen in most other places in the world, I think.”

Consider a press credential

In post-revolution Egypt, rules about press credentials can seem murky. Especially for reporters working on brief assignments, they may seem not worth following.

But being able to present proper credentials can be useful for foreign journalists conducting interviews on the streets. Dutch journalist Rena Netjes was briefly detained in April when a café owner where she was interviewing young people accused her of being a spy. She did not have an up-to-date press card on her person when doing the interviews, and the café owner requested police arrest her. They did; Netjes was detained for the afternoon and the Dutch ambassador to Egypt picked her up.

Contact information for the Cairo Press Office is available here.

Learn tendencies of protestors and security forces

There are rhythms to protests, some journalists say, and knowing them can help reporters decide where to stand and where and when to duck out of the way.

American freelance photographer Cliff Cheney came to Cairo in April 2012, although he’d been to Egypt on assignments as early as 2009. Well known in Twitter circles for covering protests around the city, Cheney is one of several journalists who say they are hassled least on the front lines of a protest.

“It’s the people on the sidelines and those who are kind of ‘halfway fighting’ who lead to problems; usually people who aren't involved in the fighting start problems with me,” he says. “When there's actually fighting, people are worried about themselves and actually, you know, dying.”

Meerman concurred.

“In my experience it's generally safest the closer you are to the frontline of the clashes,” she says via email. “That's where the least harassment is, because those people are generally too occupied with throwing and avoiding rocks, bullets and tear gas to be feeling me up or verbally harass me.”

Being aware of how the police or central security forces (riot police) operate is also essential to saying safe, reporters in Cairo say. Giles says the tactics of riot police in Cairo are similar to those of authorities in the West Bank.

“They’ll try to draw protestors to a point where they're a long way forward, say, down a long straight street,” he says. “Then they’ll suddenly run forward and catch or shoot as many as they can.
“It’s important to avoid getting drawn into one of those situations.”

Bring the right gear

Meerman says she carries “My camera, several lenses, gas mask, safety goggles, scarf, sunglasses if sunny, iPhone, something to tie my hair back with. Some pocket money for food, drink and possibly a microbus or a taxi. When it's cold or at night, a hoodie, so people can't instantly tell I'm a) female and b) foreign.”

Cheney says he brings carabineers to connect his expensive camera to his clothing. This makes it harder for them to be stolen in a crowd.

While bulletproof vests, bulletproof glasses, gas masks and bandannas are – depending on the situation – appropriate to carry to a Cairo protest, helmets are questionable.

“They make you look like a combatant,” Cheney says.

Use social media to stay abreast of developments

A well-sourced, trustworthy Twitter feed can help journalists communicate in real-time with each other, as well as protestors, about developments on the ground. This can be a useful way to know, say, if the situation is becoming more violent just one street over.

Plus, being active on social media lets a wide range of people know you’re safe and still working. Tweeting live reports also serves to promote your work to prospective editors.

Try to stay off the grid

“I think if you go anywhere as a journalist you’re more likely to be surveilled than anyone else,” says Williams-Cole from Tor International.

“Be aware of your surroundings, be aware of who might be following you but also be aware of the communication devices you’re using. You don’t need to be followed by intelligence services; police can quite happily sit in an office and use Twitter or Facebook to see what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with.”

Giles says he always assumes he is under surveillance; when using tools like satellite phones he avoids connecting from his current place of residence.

Consider, when possible, delaying the publishing times of some content until you’ve left an area. And always keep in mind possible repercussions for sources, Williams-Cole added.

It can be easy to forget that information published on a one platform can be used to find more personal information elsewhere online.

Cheney says he received death threats in the spring of 2012 while covering a protest because “some hoodlums” following him on Twitter tracked down his website, 
where they found his mobile number from the website and started texting him.

Old-fashioned surveillance is still around, too, of course; anyone from an intelligence officer to a petty thief can overhear conversations about equipment and locations of upcoming interviews and plan an attack - on a reporter or a source.

Establish codes with editors before reporting begins

This can be as simple as deciding, in advance, that Tahrir Square will be called Place A and that the presidential palace will be Place B. That way you can SMS, email or Tweet your editor that you’ve left Place A and are now reporting from Place B – without too much fear of giving your position away to unsavory surveillance forces.

Assigning codes to source names and travel routes might also be beneficial.

Know when to leave the scene

Meerman says any of several triggers might prompt her to leave a protest: credible reports of people being hurt by rubber bullets, live ammunition, birdshot or stone-throwing. She’ll also leave when noticing many young children at the frontline.

“Going in at that point is an open invitation to get sexually assaulted, and quite possibly get your stuff stolen,” she says. 

Cheney says he often leaves when crowds become unsympathetic and demand he stop photographing.

“There's really no arguing at that point."

Don’t stop here

Relevant, free guides to reporting from dangerous places are available online here, here and here.

Tags: tips, saftey, reporting, protest, photography, north africa, middle east, mena, maghreb, journalists,