Damage to a Christian-owned building after a confrontation between Muslims and Copts, Imbaba, Cairo. (Photo: Khalil Hamra/AP)

by Maurice Chammah

For years, scholars, journalists, and politicians in the Middle East have accused television channels, newspapers, and other media of fueling hostility between religious groups. Policy papers describe how Iraqi media exacerbates hatred between Shi’a, Sunni, Kurdish, and other communities. In 2007, the president of the Lebanese National Media Council “strongly asked” his country’s media to “avoid transmitting news that might lead to strife.” Last month, a media advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused small satellite channels of “inciting sectarian wars, fabricating facts about what’s happening in our country.” In Egypt, presenters on ultraconservative Coptic and Muslim talk shows have attacked one other for years, and on October 9, 2011, Egyptian state media was widely accused of fomenting inter-religious anger and distrust for its coverage of a protest in which Coptic Christians were attacked by the Egyptian military.

But are wire agencies open to such accusations? State-hired and religious reporters in the Middle East have never conceived of their work as neutral, while international news agencies like AFP, AP, and Reuters articulate their mission as neutral, dispassionate, and objective. In 2004, Reuters asked a Canadian newspaper chain to remove the bylines of their reporters because the newspapers had edited the text and replaced words like ‘insurgents’ and ‘rebels’ with ‘terrorists’ in their version of the articles. The global managing editor of Reuters, David A. Schlesinger called these ‘emotive words’ and argued that they had no place in his editorial vision.

Reporters for wire agencies never write ‘I saw’ or ‘She told me’ and they abhor phrases like ‘I felt’ or ‘I assumed.’ As a result, I have to obscure the identity of the friend I interviewed about reporting on ‘sectarianism’ at a wire agency. Throughout our conversation—after I received begrudging permission to put it ‘on the record’—this journalist would say every few minutes, ‘Now you can’t print that detail, because that will give me away.’ I’ll call this reporter Ahmed, the most common Egyptian male name.

As wire services have expanded from brief clips about wars, protests, and politics (what is conventionally called ‘hard news’), they’ve moved towards writing features. To write a feature, you need a narrative, and to write a narrative, you have to exercise creativity, making choices about the lead, the angle, and quotations. To exercise this kind of creativity, do you need an opinion? And could this opinion encourage or validate or even invent sectarianism where it did not exist before? Ahmed has much to say on this subject.

After falling into journalism by accident a few years ago (“My resume fell into the wrong pile at a job fair”), Ahmed covered all sorts of political and economic stories leading up the 2011 uprisings. He started to notice that the wire agencies, which often have the first write-up of any major event (‘The first draft of history,’ goes the old saying), subtly influence the narrative taken by the rest of the press, as they respond with the second wave of stories.

On other occasions, the narrative taken by the rest of the press overwhelms the story at hand. Ahmed told me he avoids reporting on the Egypt-Israel border, when Israel accuses Egypt of complicity in guerrilla attacks from the Sinai. These stories are difficult to verify, Ahmed explained, because questioning the validity of Israeli assertions opens him to accusations of partiality in Egypt’s favor. “You know that just by participating in the story that you will have to counter an argument that is not objective at its core,” he said. “As a matter of journalistic principle, I don’t want to participate.”

But sometimes he has no choice. One night while Ahmed was working late, villagers attacked a church hundreds of miles from Cairo in Egypt’s south. He went home at 3am and when he woke up the next day, his editors had booked him a roundtrip flight south.

Newsstand. (Source: Library of Congress).

As soon as news of the attack reached television, everyone, including Ahmed’s editors, assumed that Muslims had attacked Christians in an episode of ‘sectarianism.’ It was a timeless tale, more famously played out in Lebanon and Iraq, but uncorked in Egypt by the revolution. You often hear in Egypt that the Coptic leadership made a devil’s bargain with the secular Mubarak regime, and that now they’re paying for it, stranded as Islamist political parties win majorities in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Ahmed was not so sure about this particular incident. He thought the dispute might have to do with inter-family rivalries, surely propelled by religious differences, but not totally produced by them; sectarian tension, maybe, but not sectarian war, not strife. He traveled through the village, arranging a dozen or so interviews with the families involved. Wire agencies must, by their nature, work quicker than standalone newspapers. The pressure to get the story out, Ahmed told me, was weighing down on him from editors in Cairo

He talked to Muslim families, as well as to the Christians. It was a small town, Ahmed decided, where people have been fighting for so long that nobody knows whom to blame. In addition, the problem had been exacerbated by a lack of clarity in the laws regarding church licenses, brought about by decades of bureaucratic malaise in the rural fringes.

The editors weren’t pleased. It was too complex. They didn’t feel an international audience could make sense of Ahmed’s vaguely academic web of inter-family tensions. It would be easier, they decided, to frame the story as one of religious hatred.

So they went back and forth with Ahmed, line by line, over the phone. Ahmed was alone in a hotel room hours from Cairo after forty-eight hours of reporting work. When one editor said curtly, “This sounds like persecution to me,” Ahmed told me, he almost resigned. They were jumping to conclusions, painting Egypt as a country descending into sectarianism, into Muslims vs. Christians, and Ahmed wanted no part. He was Egyptian, after all, and the editors were not. He had a stake in the way his country was represented.

The final story, Ahmed said, represented a compromise between the editors’ need for simplicity and Ahmed’s observations. They decided to lead with how the crisis reflected on the country’s leaders, taking the focus away from the specific story and putting it into a broader context.

In the months that followed, other news outlets reported the story according to the Muslims vs. Christians frame. Coptic organizations in the U.S. decried persecution. Ahmed had expected this. What surprised him was how his own agency’s stories about sectarian tensions in small villages would always add a few words between commas, something to the effect of ‘issues sometimes fueled by tribal or inter-family disputes.’ Ahmed believes that his framing of the story has made its way into the stock phrases repeated in other articles. Wire stories runs so widely, Ahmed explained, that even phrases and words “rub off into copy elsewhere.” Months after the story, Ahmed felt like he had a small part in the first draft of Egypt’s history, because even if the wire agencies sometimes fueled sectarianism by means of simplification, he had inserted a small cushion to soften the impact.

Nevertheless, this small satisfaction was not enough for Ahmed. He’s leaving his reporting job to go back to school.


Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com

With support from the Henry R. Luce initiative on Religion and International Affairs.