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Reem Maged: On the possibility, and impossibility, of a free media

Reem Magued abandoned the media arena for almost two years, and just as her disappearance raised questions, so has her return.

Her disappearance coincided with the Egyptian media’s change in course following the regime change in July 2013 up until this month, the mention of her name always raised the question of the possibility of her return. And return she did, with “Gamei’ Moannas Sallem,” a show airing in Egypt on the privately owned ONtv and the German channel Deutsche Welle.

A month after her return, and even before the fourth episode was broadcast, ONtv management postponed airing the remaining episodes due to “administrative reasons,” while rumors emerged about an “unspecified higher entity” being responsible for the decision.

One year ago, and a few months after moving out of the limelight, Reem was a guest at the Mada Breakfast. In a talk with the Mada team, she described feeling alienated from the media scene — a feeling that came to a head with her exclusion from even hosting a social show.

We publish this interview now in the midst of contradicting statements from various sides of the conflict in order to better understand Reem’s intellectual background and the stances held by the various involved parties. Perhaps some of the points raised in the talk are now dated; nevertheless, they remain important to understand the root of the problem.

Mada Masr: Why did you stop hosting your show “Baladna bel Masry” on ONtv?

Reem Magued: I stopped simply because my profession as I know it is different from what’s available now, unlike what many believe — that I pulled away because of my views on politics.

Politically, I would have wanted to stay around, but professionally it was impossible. As journalists, you know about the “ethics clause.” The ONtv network changed its course, and with that change there was no longer any common ground between us, so I left.

MM: Let’s take a step back. Tell us about your experience during the show, the spaces you managed to create and how it gained its importance.

RM: Both the show and the network existed but became more famous after the revolution.

I think the effort we exerted before helped us during the revolution. When I started with ONtv, I had been working in television for 12 or 13 years, but mostly in French and in documentaries, and that is why I was not known enough to the audience. But some people watched us, maybe because of the different way of talking, or because we tacked topics that no other channels covered. We were seeking the stories, not looking to increase viewership. I believe this resilient approach was easier before all eyes were on us.

During the revolution, unlike what many expected, we did not have big meetings to decide on editorial plans. We each worked separately, and I took this direction despite of the threats that came from “above.”

There was no pressure on the management, but there was the fear of closing down. We pushed and pulled without sticking to a specific plan and created spaces, but paid the price. What now pains me the most is to pull back from the achievement we reached and paid the price for.

The ceiling of freedom wasn’t raised on its own, so we can’t now pull it down while ignoring the price that has been paid.

MM: When was the moment you realized you could no longer cope with the media’s trends in Egypt?

RM: There was no specific moment, and most of my career decisions happen by coincidence, but later I discover that they were for the best.

Coincidently, July 3 was my last day on air, before my yearly vacation in Ramadan. During that month I watched the coverage and never went back.

I was not pulled off air, and I was not stopped because of pressure or a political situation. It had to do with a station I used to work for that changed its course completely, and there was no more common ground between us. I am not saying that our guiding principles matched, but there was a minimum of common ground for both of us to work with.

Secondly, the network, with strong conviction, thinks that we should be a tool of the regime because this is what will rescue Egypt. But rescuing Egypt is not our job. We have to do our job and should not be regime-affiliated. Even if I vote for the ruler, I will not be a tool in his hand. I will question him — I will question him to rise and not to fall.

MM: What if you had gone back to work after your vacation and continued to do what you usually do? Would that have been possible?

RM: I didn’t want to. They wanted me to, and they offered to meet me halfway, but as I said we raised the ceiling of freedom, so I could not settle for less.

I might be wrong, and my colleagues who chose to continue and say a little more than the rest were right, but I believe that half the truth is still a lie. I did not want to draw a misleading image of freedom of speech and give a fake sense of credibility to the regime.

I can’t say what would’ve happened if someone on television said the whole truth. I did not try, but this seemed impossible.

The other point was the possibility of finding information. Our reporters were in the field when the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in was dispersed, and there were four hours they could not cover. They worked from 4 am to 7 am until people started leaving through the secure passageway. Afterward, no cameras were allowed. So I could not find information — what could I have done, just say my opinion?

MM: Give us a timeline during which the ceiling of freedoms was raised, from your point of view.

RM: Our peak was in 2012. But now when I think back, I believe I was naïve, because the state and the people were against the regime — of course journalists were arrested and killed, but we reached the top. The president was heavily criticized. In 2012 we reached the ceiling of media freedom … But this freedom came at a price. The cost increased from 2011 to 2012, then it fell, not because of pressure, but because of the conviction that this was not the time to point out the downside of equating the fight against terrorism with conforming [with the state line]. Owners [of media outlets] were convinced that they had to save the country.

MM: You fought for this space of freedom, which you created for yourself. Give us an example of the negotiations that took place.

RM: After 2011, the problem was with anything related to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It was the biggest taboo. Yet we struggled and broke this barrier completely.

For instance, with the case of the virginity tests, we did not declare that we would be discussing it, so we were transferred to military prosecution along with our guest, activist Hossam al-Hamalawi. Had I said beforehand that I would be tackling the issue of virginity tests, it would have been quite a battle.

Additionally, it took us 24 hours and lots argument to be able to broadcast footage of the Maspero massacre. During [former President Mohamed] Morsi’s time, there were no taboos — criticizing the Interior Ministry and everything else was allowed. But tackling past calamities, such as Mohamed Mahmoud and the Cabinet incidents, was frowned upon. The question was always, “Why now? Let’s focus on the present.” But I always thought the present is an extension of the past, and since justice hadn’t been served, it was worth raising the issue.

MM: Many considered you an activist. What is your response to that?

RM: At the beginning I was unaware of that, and did not intend for it to happen. This was a phase where we tried everything, got scared like never before, and felt extreme happiness, doubt and certainty. Also, the role of the media wasn’t clear at all times. I knew I had power, but didn’t know how to use it; it was simply an experimental phase. We didn’t do it intentionally.

Now, the first thing I say to interns in their first interview is that we are not activists, we are not politicians, we are not social workers or preachers. We are journalists, and our job is to gather the largest amount of information as possible. However, there are moments, especially when the whole system is flawed, when I did things that were unprofessional — but I wouldn’t have slept if I had not done them.  There were others who acted unprofessionally, but they lied and mislead many. In the end, I just tell what I see with my own eyes.

Finally, I reached the perfect solution: That there shouldn’t be any opinion, yet if I absolutely have to, I should clearly and openly say that it is an opinion and not the ultimate truth. After going through what I have done, I never presented my opinion as the truth.

There is nothing wrong with declaring a specific stance. Media around the world have declared affiliations, and it is the audience’s right to have these orientations declared openly.

What is objectivity? We take a number of decisions that cannot be objective, starting with the choice of our guest [on the show]. There is no objectivity, but one can be professional. When I look back at the work I’ve done, I believe I wasn’t always objective, but I tried to be as professional as I could in light of a social and political situation that is bigger than us all.