Abdel Rahman Yaqout has had several encounters with the police. It has been a part of his job as a photojournalist with Karmoz, an ambitious local journalism venture that carved out a space for itself in Alexandria for five years. For to work as a photojournalist in Egypt means you are regularly stopped by curious police officers. The encounters can be brief, with questions centered on photographic subjects. It is a quotidian drama Yaqout knows well.
But the questioning can also last longer. In May 2014, Yaqout was hanging out in an apartment building in a national electricity company-owned compound in Agami, a district on the outskirts of Alexandria, when a market across the street piqued his interest. He walked out onto the apartment’s balcony and photographed it, an act which caught the attention of a security guard, who then escorted him to an adjacent police station. From there, Yaqout was driven to a special investigative police department that deals with electricity theft, under the pretense that he was photographing sensitive infrastructure. A National Security Agency (NSA) officer arrived at the police station shortly after to question him. Three hours later, Yaqout was released.
A similar episode will unfold in March 2015. But this time, it will take two years to remedy the error, a time period in which the Karmoz experiment will end, as many dreams did.
The young men and women attending a journalism training workshop in Alexandria at the end of the summer of 2010 are flustered. Why do they have to move to Cairo for a decent chance at being journalists? One of the workshop trainers notes their frustration and makes a simple suggestion. “I know a guy, here, in Alexandria,” he says. “He can help you to set up a website.”
The person he had in mind was Rabea Fahmy, who would become one of the founders of Karmoz. A year elapsed between the workshop session and the launch of the website. It was the year of the revolution, when dreams felt more attainable than at any other time.
Rabea and Abdel Rahman Bassiouny made plans to found and run the website alongside four others, splitting the ownership stake 50-50. They put down LE2,000 to design and host the site, registering the company as an advertising company as no laws exist regulating online media platforms. With a commercial license and tax card in hand, the website was ready to go live.
The project’s skeletal structure began to take form: Rabea started reading books that detailed how to form a business team and on management principles, and the team held several introduction meetings. Each team member was tasked with asking 10 acquaintances for a name for a potential Alexandrian media project. Somewhere in the exchange Bassiouny suggested Karmoz, the name of a popular Alexandrian neighborhood believed to be the oldest area in the city, and the site’s name was settled. For the website’s motto they chose “Your Eye on Events.”
For Rabea, one of the major challenges for Karmoz centered on how to craft a local media venture that breaks with the centrality of Cairo as a hub for news coverage and production and could stand as an example for ventures in other governorates, in addition to creating independent content that did not become implicated in political battles. The concerns are manifest in the editorial policy drafted shortly after the launch and published for their still nascent readership, a move that preempted major Egyptian newspapers’ similar decisions.
“We present our reader with everything that happens in society in journalistic form, appropriately, and we do not exclude any subjects or ideas from our writing, respecting citizens’ absolute right to knowledge,” the editorial policy stated. “We do not publish personal photos or stories about celebrities, public figures or normal citizens. We do not comment on judicial rulings, and we abide by the laws governing the relationship between journalists and judges. The right to comment on our stories or our opinion articles is available to everyone on the website.”
A more challenging rule, especially in post-revolutionary years stated, “We do not comment on political events, even from a personal point of view. We limit ourselves to record, document and investigate reality.”
Karmoz’s coverage did not discriminate. During the first post-Mubarak presidential elections in 2012, the site equally covered the campaigns of the two Alexandrian candidates: Islamist Mohamed Selim al-Awwa and Socialist Coalition Party leader Abul Ezz al-Hariri. Neither ultimately won that many votes, even in Alexandria. In addition to their special section covering multiple elections, they also had a sports section (“Zamalek cancels its training camp in Alexandria”), an arts section, and a page offering health tips and advice. They set up a multimedia section and another called Yaani eh? (What is?) which explained everything from politics (“What is salafism?” “What is a constituent assembly?”) to explaining the origins of the word Karmoz. The website described itself to readers as “an electronic magazine from the heart of Alexandria, written by all the youth of Alexandria.”
The team was preoccupied with terms. If there was an assault on a street protest, for example, the assailants could be classified into two categories: If they were resident of the area, they would be called citizens, and if they weren’t, unidentified persons.
Rabea sees this practice as a feature that differentiated Karmoz from mainstream media outlets. “We chose not to use the word baltagi (thug), as that description is only warranted by a court ruling,” he says. “If a reporter sent in news without a photo, it wouldn’t be published. We completely refused to use any archival photos, as these sometimes exaggerate an event, blowing it out of proportion.”
There is an unmistakable ease in the language of Karmoz. The writing is in classical Arabic, like most Arabic-language media writing, but slang is regularly incorporated.
Rabea maintains a calm and quiet voice, but other Karmoz members sketch him as a figure marked by an inexhaustible bustle. Each of them relays a similar first encounter with the site’s founder: Before joining Karmoz, each published a text or video report with the site. Shortly afterward, each received a phone call from Rabea who would ask them to a meeting where he offered work and a crash course in journalism.
All in their early 20s, the journalists work as volunteers. There are no regular salaries or bonuses, only nominal compensation, like books. One of Karmoz’s photojournalists remains proud that the first payment he received was LE20 and a book.
However, what Rabea promised them was that they would be part of a local journalism project that is painting with a color spectrum yet unseen in the country’s media. He offered the ability for development, which included the future prospect of a profitable return that would allow them to sustain the initiative in the future. At a minimum, the site would qualify them for work at larger institutions. While the promise of profit was not fulfilled, many Karmoz journalists moved on to work in major newspapers.
Rabea blames the marketing team for the lack of profit. The plan, he says, was to reach out to small businesses to advertise on the website, after the marketing team had failed to conclude deals with big advertisers, in part because they had put in place an advertising policy to maintain their independence.
“The math was simple. Out of 6 to 8 million Alexandrians, find only 500 who will pay LE200 a month, and you’d have a monthly revenue of LE100,000,” says Rabea, adding that this money would have been enough to pay both salaries and secure profits. “Journalism is a profitable job in a way that satisfies my conscience and convictions.”
But this math didn’t find its way into Karmoz. Financial difficulties hounded the team. “We operated with the least of costs. We borrowed and repaid in installments,” he recalls.
At one point, Karmoz decided to take out a LE20,000 loan to pay its rent for one year in advance to try and create a sense of stability. The plan was to pay back the loan once their advertising targets were met. However, while they were able to secure some advertisers, months passed without reaching the desired targets.
Notwithstanding this, the website’s editorial scope and activities increased. Aside from the daily coverage of politics, sports, arts and culture, Karmoz formed a cadre of young writers with different inflections to fill out its op-ed section. They were active in publishing video reports, produced a song called Abdel-Razzaq for a young poet, and launched a satirical YouTube program called Aheih (an Alexandrian slang word which communicates awe). After some time, Karmoz’s average monthly traffic reached 10,000 unique reads.
Rabea says he learned a lot during this period. He specifically alights on one day in which two news stories broke at once. In the first, a group of Alexandrian youth broke into an apartment block in the city’s affluent Rushdi district, rumored to be haunted. And at the same time as the break-in, an important demonstration was taking place. Rabea had dispatched all free Karmoz journalists to cover the demonstration, but one reporter, a high school student, preferred to tag along with the ghost hunters.
The decision netted Karmoz their highest number of hits for a single day to that point, with the story on the break-in attracting 14,000 readers that night.
“I learned that there is no set standard for knowing which story is more important. There is no tape measure for what’s more important or more reflective of a reader’s needs than the readers themselves.”
#اليكس #اسكندرية #alex #karmoz
قامت مجموعة شباب بالإسكندرية منذ قليل، بالصعود داخل عمارة رشدي، أو كما يُطلق عليها “عمار…
By the middle of 2013, Rabea had earned his university degree and began to prepare for his mandatory military service, organizing the required paperwork. At the same time, Egypt was overtaken by a sharp political polarization, the effects of which would continue to be felt long afterward.
The deflating general political climate and financial woes facing the project prompted disillusionment. Rabea was conscripted into the Armed Forces after former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013. He gradually withdrew from Karmoz, until his relationship with the website officially ended in mid-2014. When I met him this year, he had left Alexandria for Cairo, where he now works as a video producer for an Emirati media agency.
Rabea met Abdel Rahman Yaqout, who is now 23 years old and a business student, before he was conscripted. During the 2011 revolution, Yaqout was in high school, and he had started a small web design and digital marketing company with a friend. He also had an interest in photography, which he pursued next to his other ventures.
“I photographed protests in Alexandria, just to upload them on the internet. I never thought of marketing them or publishing them anywhere,” he says.
He lived in Agami, a district to the west of Alexandria that had seen its former life as a seaside summer destination for wealthy Alexandrians and other Egyptians fall aside to become a crowded, unplanned neighborhood where Alexandrians live because they either cannot afford housing in the city or work for one of the many factories surrounding Agami.
In the beginning of 2013, Yaqout bought a professional camera and began looking for subjects to photograph. He felt Agami was filled with problems worthy of coverage but currently underrepresented. He set up the Mubasher Min Al-Agami (Live from Agami) page on Facebook, where he uploaded the video interviews he had conducted.
When Yaqout discovered Karmoz, he sent them a story for a page they dedicated to citizen journalism. Rabea contacted him and the piece was published. Yaqout sent Rabea a link to the Live from Agami page, and Rabea asked to meet him. Much as with other Karmoz staff members, the meeting led to Yaqout joining the venture. The Live from Agami page was also incorporated into Karmoz, undergoing a slight change in name to become Akhbar al-Agami (Agami News), but otherwise remaining as it had been.
Yaqout continued to work on the page while reporting for Karmoz. News and updates from events happening in the area were now passed through Karmoz’s pipelines for editing before they were published on the Facebook page.
The page’s fan base grew, and it now covered a spectrum of topics from the neighborhood that ranged from the everyday to the spectacular: warnings about forthcoming water cuts, the removal of buildings that were not compliant with municipal regulations, traffic jams, school examination results and militant attacks. The page shot up to 60,000 subscribers, surpassing Karmoz’s primary Facebook page. The meteoric rise required more upkeep, so, in May 2014, Yaqout put out a call hoping to gather together people who would be interested in writing for the page. Ten people attended the meeting that was eventually held, with seven agreeing to come on board. This was finalized a day before Yaqout was questioned for photographing the market opposite the national electricity company.
The Agami News team began making adjustments in their production cycle. First, they created a copyediting team that would work specifically on the page’s content, rather than have publication wait on assistance from the Karmoz newsroom.
“An entire team for the page was created inside Karmoz,” Yaqout says, adding that the page itself began to generate revenue from advertising. “These were nominal sums of money, but it gave us an incentive, helped us to continue our coverage and covered transportation costs.”
The existence of a hyperlocal page specialized in covering Agami news hosted by a larger local platform focused on Alexandrian news is a testament to the potential the internet was seen to have opened for media coverage at the time. Social media platforms were seized as a window of opportunity for anyone with a desire to participate in publishing coverage of stories traditionally ignored by conventional media. Newspapers and broadcasting have limits: page space and airtime are scarce commodities, and that is not to mention the state monopoly on the broadcasting spectrum.
But not everyone overlooked the viability of local news. In 2010, Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of Egypt’s largest privately owned newspapers, began distributing a two-page daily supplement focused on Alexandrian affairs.
Dina Samir, the marketing director of Al-Masry Al-Youm, says the exclusive focus on Cairo marginalizes events that people care about in other places. Local journalism, she says, is more directly concerned with local readers, providing information on the places they live.
Al-Masry Al-Youm’s experiment lasted for a year, a period which saw the supplement’s publication frequency fall from daily to weekly, before halting altogether amid claims of financial infeasibility.
Around the same time Al-Shorouk, another major private daily publication, experimented with a similar venture. Instead of a supplement, they issued an Alexandria print edition, which was largely similar to the one focused on Cairo, it but dedicated most of its front page headlines and content to Alexandrian concerns. But what Samir calls the “Cairo-centricism of Egyptian journalism” triumphed again, and Al-Shorouk’s experiment came to a halt after fewer than two years.
Yet, other initiatives continue to search for a success model that can ensure their survival and sustainability. Mantiqti (My Neighborhood) is a local publication, serving as a non-periodic tabloid-sized edition that covers Cairo’s downtown and Zamalek neighborhoods. Yehia Wagdy, Mantiqti’s chief editor, says local newspapers represent a way out of the financially challenging paradigm of print journalism.
“The traditional form of print journalism is over, because readers don’t see themselves in it,” says Wagdy, who continues to argue, with near certainty, that the future is exclusively reserved for “hyperlocal” journalism, that “ignores larger issues to focus on the needs of its readers.”
Mantiqti’s business model seeks to rely on advertising revenue to cover expenditures, as the paper is distributed for free. Wagdy pegs the publication’s success on the fact that downtown Cairo and Zamalek are central areas where businesses are eager to advertise.
After the revolution in 2011, thousands of initiatives to generate news from specific geographical localities reliant on social network users emerged, including Port Said Al-Youm, which boasts over 200,000 likes on Facebook; Al-Mansoura Al-Youm, which has almost half a million followers; and the Cairo-based Al-Maadi Al-Youm, with over 150,000 followers. A journalist and a friend of mine in the Delta governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh says that many correspondents from large dailies in the town feel threatened by a Facebook page because it often breaks news before they file their stories to their Cairo offices for copyediting and posting.
Pages like these also don’t stop at informing residents in their areas about local news. Sometimes they can be the only source of news when a media blackout is imposed by the state, such as is the case in North Sinai under the “war on terror.” Further, some of these pages have produced exclusive coverage not found elsewhere.
Finances aside, local media pages face another challenge: They aren’t eligible to become members of Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate. As a result, journalists working with these publications are not invested with the legal guarantees granted to traditional, larger and often corporate newspapers.
The matter is not easily resolved by securing official registration either. A media draft law that is currently being discussed before Parliament would require any journalism website to secure an initial capital holding of over LE500,000 before launch. To add insult to injury and tip the scales toward the institution’s traditional leanings, the chief editor of any new website, according to the bill, must be a 10-year member of the syndicate.
These biases make registration of a media platform like Karmoz virtually impossible.
These impediments are the reason why Fatma Farag, the co-founder and manager of Welad al-Balad, a company specializing in issuing local newspapers, is not optimistic about the future of local journalism. For her, these factors kill the idea’s potential for sustainability.
The biggest challenge, however, according to Farag is coming up with a business model that works. Most local journalism projects, she says, are initiated by ambitious journalists who have little or no experience on the business side of things.
There is nonetheless a common pattern that emerges from some of these ventures. Most local journalism initiatives depend on ads as a main source of revenue. Al-Maadi Al-Youm’s content, for instance, is split between advertising and editorial content. But Farag argues that it is crucial for projects to diversify revenues sources. “We work in a hostile environment where every money-related aspect of the internet is controlled by Google and Facebook,” she says.
Much of the success of these online revenue plans rests on a local journalism venture’s ability to build an interactive community that works as an incubator for its initiatives and potential revenue, according to Farag. But this can be a never-ending struggle. Welad al-Balad has seen the same issues arise on a daily basis over the six years it has worked with local reporters to launch newspapers and websites in cities and towns in the Nile Delta, Upper Egypt and the Suez Canal area.
“Every morning we face the same question: Can we survive for another day?”
#أخبار_العجمي اا إزالة عقار مخالف على البحر العجمي
أزال حي العجمي، صباح الأمس، عقار مخالف على البحر بشارع الزهراء بأب…
Egypt was ranked the world’s third worst offender in a Committee to Protect Journalists report on countries who jailed journalists in 2014 and 2015, following Turkey and China. Yaqout and another Karmoz journalist, Ahmed Fouad, were counted among the metrics that secured Egypt this spot.
Fouad started working at Karmoz in mid-2012, when he was 17 years old. He contacted Karmoz to ask for a job, and Rabea replied. In June 2012, he was assigned to cover a demonstration commemorating the second anniversary of police brutality victim Khaled Said’s death. Fouad recorded some footage and sent it to Rabea. Impressed, Rabea brought Fouad on board, and once the high school student finished his exams, he became a part of Karmoz’s main team.
In the summer of 2013, Rabea turned over control of the website to Fouad, who at the time was about to enter his first year of university. It was a transfer of control necessitated by Rabea’s looming military service. Fouad managed the paper’s editorial responsibilities until January 25, 2014, the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution and the first since Morsi had been deposed.
On that day, Fouad was covering a protest in Alexandria’s Sidi Bishr. Minutes after the protest began, bullets began to rain down on the crowd, he recounts. Fouad pointed his camera at a child who had been shot in the stomach, before escaping down a side road, where he was confronted by unidentified people wielding knives. When Fouad backed away, police officers appeared behind him and arrested him.
Fouad was brought to the Alexandria security directorate, where the arrest record lists him as a student and video journalist. His camera was confiscated and he was questioned by a NSA officer. He was not assaulted during questioning, which deviates from what is a common occurrence. When he told the interrogating officer he was a university freshman, the officer replied, “You won’t be free until your class graduates.”
It was a threat that ultimately proved true.
When Fouad was questioned by the prosecution the next day, he was surprised not to find his camera among his possessions. He was more surprised to find that a Molotov cocktail had been added to them. He denied any connection to it.
The prosecution charged him with violating the protest law, which was passed in late 2013, joining a banned group, obstructing roads and vandalizing private and public property. Fouad was also charged with the attempted murder of the child he had photographed. He was detained at the directorate for 19 days before being transferred to Borg al-Arab Prison in the west of Alexandria.
Fouad’s detention was renewed by prosecutors until he was referred to trial at the Alexandria Criminal Court on August 25, 2014. The court scheduled initial hearings, but delays and the police’s refusal to facilitate his transfer to the courthouse prolonged his detention without trial until October 2015.
In a May 2016 report, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights asserted that the detention of Egyptians pending investigations and trial has become a tool that used by the government to punish political dissidents.
Three additional court sessions were needed for a judge to acquit Fouad of all charges in June 2016, save for protesting, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison and issued a LE100,000 fine. By the time of the ruling, Fouad had spent two years, five months and 19 days in prison.
On January 27, 2017, Fouad had served his full sentence and he walked free on February 2, after procedures for his release were concluded. When I ask him if he will return to journalism, he says no.
Fouad’s arrest started a discussion inside Karmoz about the possibility of closing the venture. Yaqout came out strongly against the idea. However, by mid-2014, financial pressures had forced the team to give up its headquarters, but the website was still running. Nothing else changed except for the decision to refrain from covering political events from the street.
Yaqout broke this rule on March 21, 2015. After hearing rumors of an explosion at the market across from the national electricity company in Agami, the same one he photographed in 2014, he took his camera and set off to report.
By 11 am, he arrived at the scene to find a crowd of people in front of the local police station. He quickly learned that there was no explosion, but that the crowd had gathered because a young woman was staging a sit-in and obstructing the road. He wanted to know what she was protesting, and began filming the scene with his mobile phone, but a police officer quickly approached him to inquire what he was doing. When Yaqout responded that he was a journalist, he was arrested and escorted into a police vehicle.
He remembers gazing through the car’s window, seeing a mother holding her son and whispering something into his ear as she pointed at Yaqout. For some reason, he says he felt she was warning her son against becoming like him. It was this incident that affected him the most.
After a day filled with transfers and interrogations, which included being escorted to his residence where he watched police search through his possessions, Yaqout was read the list of accusations in the arrest report: protesting alongside three other people at 7 pm and assaulting police officers with Molotov cocktails.
The next day, Yaqout was questioned by the prosecution, which scheduled an additional session the day after and requested an investigation report on Yaqout from the NSA. Citing the 2014 incident in which he had been questioned for photographing the Agami market, the report accused him of working for news channels affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yaqout then learned that he faced a separate charge in connection to the case of the young woman obstructing the road. According to the police narrative, she and Yaqout blocked the road at noon and then set fire to the police station, later protesting with three others at 7 pm the same evening at which point he was arrested.
He was held in detention while investigations were carried out in the first case until he was referred to trial in May 2015. At which point, he was transferred to Borg al-Arab Prison. Yaqout’s story follows a similar trajectory to Fouad’s: Despite there being hearings scheduled by the court in the first case in September 2015 as well as January and April 2016, he missed all of them because police either were late or refused to transfer him to court.
Yaqout appeared before a judge for the first time in September 2016, and was acquitted of charges in the first case: assaulting police with a Molotov cocktail during an illegal evening protest.
In February 2016, he was referred to trial in the second case, where he stood accused of illegal protesting and blocking the road. He attended the first hearing in April but missed the subsequent ones for the same reasons that plagued his first case. He finally went to court again in March 2017, when he was acquitted.
Two acquittals after two years in prison. He never learned what the young woman was protesting.
“They wrote on Karmoz’s walls: We do not have the truth, but we search for it, and we attribute it to its source,” says Heba Shaaban, the last chief editor of Karmoz, as she glosses over the ambitions of the project.
Despite a year having passed since the website’s closure, Shaaban speaks passionately, with the air of someone aware of the importance and impact of what the platform’s vision was. “When you do local journalism, you break the pervasive centrism. You can create a democratic society based on accountability,” she tells me.
Shaaban began working in Karmoz near the end of 2012, after an ad appeared on her Facebook timeline noting that there were vacancies for reporters. She went in for an interview, and was asked to answer a few questions and write a brief story. Once hired, additional workshops over a two-day period completed her training.
She still remembers her first Karmoz story: “The distortion of Alexandria’s architecture.” Along with the rest of the website’s archive, the story has been lost, but she has preserved its introduction:
“Alexandria is the bride of the Mediterranean sea. At over 3,200 years old, it is distinguished by its buildings and architectural heritage which stand witness to its long history. But these buildings were subjected to a vicious attack.
The result was the demolition of over 40 palaces and villas that were part of the city’s heritage, and their replacement with residential towers. A hundred ancient sites were damaged or destroyed, as reported on Al Jazeera on 9/24/2012, according to Antiquities Ministry officials quoted by the website. Our first trip to the site of a seaside villa in the Sidi Bishr neighborhood …”
She says she is embarrassed at her amateur style, which evolved with years of experience. But she still loves her first story.
Shaaban worked in Karmoz’s arts and culture section, covering cultural events and conducting interviews with artists, poets and actors in various others fields.
She says she is proud of the young talent that the platform discovered. “We had an entire section dedicated to young, local talent,” she says, adding that Karmoz pioneered writing about new talent in Alexandria. “Whether poets or nascent cultural movements, we covered it first, and other journalists would follow suit.”
Shaaban gradually ascended to the position of Karmoz’s arts and culture editor, forming a whole arts and culture team. She says she learned a lot from the way Rabea and other managing editors would correct writing and language errors. “They would insist that we view our mistakes and correct them ourselves. It was a great educational experience.”
With more experience and after some time had passed, Shaaban began editing and publishing stories herself. She says she continued to adhere to Karmoz’s founding ethos that held that journalists shouldn’t voice their political opinions on their social media pages.
This policy helped preserve Karmoz’s reputation as a neutral platform during a period of political polarization that engulfed several media organizations.
No one accepted neutrality in times like those, she says.
Shaaban became managing editor when Rabea left, and more journalists joined Karmoz. According to the website’s founding plan, each journalist should produce five news items per day, in addition to two reports and an interview every week.
The editorial team met every week to discuss the forthcoming week’s plan, in addition to the investigative reports being conducted. Shaaban specifically remembers an investigation the webiste published on corruption inside a university hospital in the neighborhood of Semouha. The story was picked up by other news websites, and Karmoz’s chief editor was brought onto a local state-owned television channel to discuss it.
Shaaban became editor-in-chief in July 2015. Abdel Rahman Yaqout and Ahmed Fouad were in prison because of their work, and the team had grown disillusioned. “The arrests depressed us,” Shaaban says. “Some journalists stopped coming to work.” In addition, financial troubles continued to plague the organization. Without an office, and prevented from reporting from the street without risking arrest or worse, they decided to end the venture in January 2016.
The last thing Karmoz published was a story on transforming the lighting system in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina using power-saving LEDs.
A simple ending. No parting letter. No editorial notice.
Karmoz’s archive was lost twice. The first time occurred one year into operations, when the staff forgot to pay the domain hosting fees. The second time occurred after the decision to shut down. Funds were needed to keep the archive, and they weren’t available. A fragmented version of it can be viewed here.
Translated by Osman El Sharnoubi