Feisty Student Publication Defies Censorship in Egypt
CAIRO—Some students who felt they were faced with an overflow of biased and politicized media coverage of university life decided to take matters into their own hands. They created their own media outlet.
Right after January 25th, 2011, Shaheer Shaheen couldn’t find honest answers to questions about what exactly was going own in his own university, the German University in Cairo. Other universities across the country were buzzing with protests. So in April 2011, he founded The Insider, a student newspaper that quickly expanded to nine other universities, including Al-Azhar, Tanta and Cairo.
“There was no neutral entity that provided balanced coverage,” says Shaheen. “So we decided to launch a student newspaper with editorial independence that didn’t promote a certain ideology or direction and so that we could see the events impartially.”
Soon after, The Insider started expanding to other private and public universities, training students to be journalists, helping them find financial support and giving them feedback on their new editions.
The Insider stresses its editorial independence. Some universities, including Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, already had newspapers produced by students. Shaheen argues, however, that The Insider, unlike other newspapers on campuses, is not under the supervision of the administration.
“The Voice of the University [a newspaper published by Cairo University] is supervised by professors and it is part of mass communication students’ coursework, and so professors decide on what to publish,” says Dina Radwan, journalism head of The Insider Cairo University. “Our student journalism has more freedom because we are our own supervisors.”
The Insider also prides itself on being more timely than other campus newspapers, which often print weekly or monthly. “The Insider is very current, we have social media, live tweeting and breaking news,” says Shaheen. Shaheen explains the newspaper focuses on youth whose daily lives are occupied to significant extents with Twitter and Facebook.
Reem Gouda, editor in chief of The Insider Tanta, believes the publication’s online presence is already making a difference on the ground. She recounts how an article about high cafeteria prices resulted in a new price list. Similarly, an article about a taxi driver harassing a student resulted in the administration banning the driver from entering campus.
Coverage of that sort has helped The Insider build an audience. The Facebook page of The Insider at the German University has over 24,000 likes on Facebook. But many students are wary of any journalists on campus.
Aya Morsi, a reporter with the The Insider Cairo University, explains that protesters, especially Muslim Brotherhood supporters, do not want to be featured on camera or video out of fear for their security. Similarly, she tells a story of a student whom some protestors accused of being a ‘amnageya,’ slang for someone secretly cooperating with the police. “Students are generally scared of being featured on camera,” says Radwan.
Reporters on the Al-Azhar University campus brave security at protests but also face much student skepticism. “The difficulties we face getting answers from students are much harder than those we face getting university approvals,” says Abdel Hamid El Tahtawy, editor in chief of the Al Azhar University branch. Students, he said, “always ask us who we are and which direction we belong to and whether we are members of the Muslim Brotherhood or not.”
Shaheen explains that although the Internet gives students freedom of expression, readers’ tolerance to different opinions is low. “There is little tolerance and high polarization among people and students who are always on the edge verge of fighting with one another over news or events,” he says.
The process of getting official permission to report on campuses and to put out print editions has not been smooth sailing. Administrators didn’t always like the idea of journalists on campus whom they couldn’t control.
The Insider at the German University in Cairo and the American University in Cairo have approvals to publish their monthly print editions on campus, but the other eight universities are still struggling to get such approvals.
Fatma Khaled, editor in chief of The Insider MIU (Misr International University) believes the university is stalling in approving the publication because there are a lot of controversial issues on campus, like the lack of a student union, clubs and student activities. The administration wanted to review print articles before publication, she added.
The editorial teams of the eight newspapers without print-edition permits, however, have not let crippling procedures and censorship attempts stop them. They have resorted to online editions and social media to let have their voices be heard.
But even their online presence is sometimes met with disdain. Students at Misr International University, for instance, say they were threatened with suspension for an article the university disapproved of.
Universities also often refuse to let students take pictures on campus or set up promotional booths.
Shaheen, however, is confident it is only a matter of time until administrations ease up on The Insider and grasp its goal of accurate, balanced information. The student journalists say the importance of their role is most apparent at a university like Al-Azhar, which has faced clashes and disputes on almost daily basis. “We want to turn Al-Azhar University from a place where students are afraid to speak up and where outsiders are muddled as to what is happening to an entity where there is communication between students, administration and outsiders,” says Tahtawy.