Thursday, June 12, 2008

Like Oil and Vinegar: Video Journalism and Egypt

By Carla Babb

Video journalism and the Egyptian police simply don’t mix. Sure, the government allows Egypt TV to work under close supervision and censorship, but good luck to anyone else wanting to carry a camera and tripod around the country. While in Cairo, I attempted to produce a video report on archeology and tourism, but the production process turned into an experience filled with threats, denials, and a little “red carpet” treatment all in the same day.

Saturday is normally a weekend, but for me it was a workday. Thanks to Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, I was given permission to shoot video at four major historical locations in Egypt: the Cairo Museum, the government dig locations behind Giza, the well-known Giza pyramids, and Sakara, home to the oldest step-pyramid in the world. But as I soon found out, “permission from authority” is relative in a police state.

I arrived at the Cairo Museum at 9am with three friends from our American University in Cairo journalism program. I entered the gates, camera and tripod in hand, ready to shoot footage and move on to the next site. I handed the policeman at the gate my permission letter with Hawass’ signature, but he told me I couldn’t film there because I needed yet another permission form. My friends and I waited and argued outside for more than an hour before they finally let us in the museum. When we finally went inside, we only had one hour to shoot all the footage before the museum security kicked us out.

My next stop was the Giza pyramids. I initially thought this would be the easiest place to carry around a camera since tourist carry cameras there all the time. However, a guard met us at the entrance and accompanied us the entire time I shot footage. When I interviewed tourists, the police kept a watchful eye on my every move. I also interviewed a merchant working at the pyramids, and that interview was the last straw for police. They encircled us during the interview and then followed me to the bus and spoke forcefully to me in Arabic. I couldn’t understand. My Arabic-speaking friend explained to me that they were giving me three choices: I could either erase the interview, give them my camera, or go to jail. Obviously, none of those choices were acceptable, but arguing did nothing. I took a deep breath, rewound my tape for about thirty seconds in front of the policeman, and recorded two minutes of black. What the policeman didn’t know was that the interview was in fact about six minutes further back on the tape instead of 30 seconds back. Fortunately, he didn’t check the tape to make sure I had erased it.

Behind schedule and exhausted, we headed for the digs. We made it to the entrance road and no farther. They refused to let us in the area despite our permission, and there was nothing any of us could say or do.

Finally, we headed to Sakara. The pyramid was like a mirage, with nothing nearby for what seemed like miles. In the far distance stalked the shadows of tall, modern buildings, but there everything was tranquil and ancient. The manager greeted us at the door, read our permission form and ushered us in with excitement. He took us to all of the “great filming spots” and allowed us in tombs other tourists could not enter. He bragged how he had just taken National Geographic cameramen around a few months before, and he said he loved when journalists did stories involving the great step pyramid and its surrounding tombs. Not a single policeman objected.

I couldn’t believe it. Was I in the same country? How could he be so helpful while everyone else was so restrictive? I came to the conclusion that even when I jumped through hoops for policemen and archeologists, access ultimately depended on their mood and sense of security. Al Jazeera English programming director Scott Ferguson told me his video journalists deal with this problem of access all the time in the Middle East. “It depends on their [the police officers’] moods, which ebb and flow at any given point of time,” he said.

Maybe the Egyptian policemen I met thought they would lose their jobs if I went into a restrictive dig site. In America, however, my experiences with authority and cameras have resulted in the opposite way of thinking. Authority figures in the states have often thought they might lose their jobs if they did not let me into a place in which I had permission to film. Free press often trumps restriction in the states, but I found that restriction rules the day in Egypt. So video journalists, be prepared to move mountains, turn water into wine and mix oil and vinegar when you come to this country.

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