This may surprise you, but Mohammed Fahmy, the imprisoned Al Jazeera English journalist who on Friday was awarded the World Press Freedom Award, is actually kind of a dick.
And I’m sure he feels the same way about me.
A couple of years before he and his colleagues Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed were arrested in Cairo and accused of running a terrorist cell from their rooms at the Marriott, I worked with Fahmy on a story I produced for VICE News. It was July 2011 and the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak earlier in the year hadn’t brought the sea change that Egyptians were hoping for. Protesters were expected to return to Tahrir Square in what was being dubbed, “Egypt’s Second Revolution.” The very short version of this story is that we were having trouble getting all of the elements of the story we were after when we met Fahmy who offered his services as a fixer. Now, we already had a fixer in Cairo, but I was willing to try anything at that point, so I hired Fahmy for a day to see what he could do. He delivered, but he didn’t gel with me and my crew. At the end of a very long day of shooting, we were happy to part ways.
The next morning, working again with our original fixer, we traveled to Port Said on the Suez Canal, where we heard rumors that the Egyptian Army was violently cracking down on protesters. We were there all of a half-hour before being accused by the locals of being “spies.” Luckily the Army got to us before the angry mob did. Our crew was detained, interrogated, interrogated again, driven back to Cairo, interrogated together, interrogated separately, and at around one or two in the morning, released into the custody of the US State Department. When I got my phone back, I saw a BBM from Fahmy asking if it was true that we had been arrested.
“Just a little,” I replied.
He said he wanted to write a story about it, and asked for quotes from us. I declined, saying that I didn’t think there was much of a story — getting detained for long, boring periods of time followed by being unceremoniously released is quite commonplace in our line of work. I asked him as a favor to please not make a big deal about it, and if he did feel that he had to write something, to please just leave our names out of it.
He ran the story, names and all, which pissed me off. We traded shitty BBMs back and forth, and I came away thinking of him as a pushy, bull-headed bastard who cared more about getting a story out than for the people who that story was about.
In other words, a damn good journalist.
Journalists are people whose jobs it is to find out things that people don’t necessarily want them to find out. That often requires a type of aggression and self-righteous determination that rubs people the wrong way. And that’s one of the reasons we need to change the way we talk about press freedom.
While we like to lionize journalists as noble truth seekers serving the public good, for those on the other side of their aggressive reporting, they are a fucking nightmare. So when journalists get detained, our knee-jerk moral indignation means fuck-all to the people who see those journalists as a threat. Wagging our finger at them in the hope that they’ll suddenly come around to our way of thinking is naïve.
So let’s change the conversation.
That the belligerent actions of journalists are met with an equal and opposite reaction is understandable. Why would you make it easy for someone to make your life more difficult? But it’s the overreaction to journalism—censorship, imprisonment, and violence — that reveal a country’s true colors. We need to start asking if governments that aren’t grown up enough to be able to handle a little bad press ought to be allowed to play with guns. Or rather, allowed to receive generous military aid.
Right now, rather than pushing for the release of Fahmy and the other Al Jazeera journalists, the Obama administration is pushing for the release of $650 million in military aid to the Egyptian government. The same government that has imprisoned Fahmy, Greste, and Mohamed since December 2013, and today — on World Press Freedom Day —denied them bail.
It’s understandable the United States puts national defense, economic security, and other global strategic interests before a press freedom in Egypt. It really, truly is. But when the Egyptian military released the VICE News crew to a team from the US State Department, I couldn’t help but notice that the US Defense attaché was there, and the Egyptian military officers were very apologetic about this “misunderstanding.” How much effort would it take for the current attaché to pick up the phone and say, “I know Mohammed Fahmy and his friends are a pain in the ass, but how badly do you want these Apache helicopters?”
Follow Jason Mojica on Twitter: @elmodernisto