Shameful journalism in wake of Shalit release

26th Oct 2011

PRAGUE — On Oct. 18, Israeli Sergeant First Class Gilad Shalit was released from more than five years of captivity in Gaza. Abducted in a 2006 cross-border raid by Hamas, Shalit was denied visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross in violation of international law. In a deal orchestrated by the Egyptian government, Israel will release more than 1,000 Palestinians, many convicted or suspected of perpetrating violence against Israeli civilians.

Given the enormous trauma Shalit has suffered and is suffering, most Israelis assumed it would be at least several months before he granted an interview. So it came as something of a shock to see the 25-year-old Shalit, just minutes after his release from Gaza, giving a television interview.

Even more puzzling was that the journalist sitting across from him was not an Israeli, but Shahira Amin, former deputy director of Egypt’s NileTV and a freelance contributor to CNN International. Amin famously quit the state-owned network Feb. 3 after complaining it was not providing accurate coverage of the mass demonstrations that would just days later topple President Hosni Mubarak (Amin returned to NileTV in May).

In most circumstances, getting the first interview with the likes of Shalit would be a major coup, the sort of achievement that earns plaudits from colleagues around the world. But in this case it was an utter perversion of journalistic principles.

Shalit was interviewed before being handed over to Israeli authorities, before undergoing a medical examination, before stepping foot on his native soil, before even speaking to his long-suffering parents. He entered the Egyptian studio surrounded by his captors, who were clad in masks and bearing guns. The interview was conducted under obvious coercion and duress. Shalit had lost a great deal of weight, stammered throughout, and his face bore the psychological agony from which it may take a lifetime to recover.

None of this mattered to Amin, who asked Shalit leading questions like, “There are more than 4,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Will you help campaign for their release?”

Never mind that the interview was in enormously bad taste. It very well may have been in violation of the Third Geneva Convention, Article 13, which mandates that prisoners of war must at all times be “humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”

Amin, in other words, is not a respectable journalist. The woman described several years ago by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram as “every inch the slender pillar of Pharaonic elegance” is a purveyor of tabloid trash. She is the Jerry Springer of the Arab Street.

So it was strange to see Amin lauded as some sort of courageous hero earlier this month at Forum 2000, the annual confab put on by former Czech President Václav Havel. As it always does, this year’s conference, titled “Democracy and the Rule of Law,” brought together international dignitaries who are generally united around basic liberal precepts. Understandably looking for a fresh, liberal Egyptian face for the event, forum organizers chose Amin, who, at first glance, appears to fit in well.

In the forum’s first daily bulletin, Amin wrote of “Mubarak and his henchmen” and described “a battle where, on the one hand, traditionalists are struggling to hold on to a decadent corrupt media system based on nepotism and built around the top-down handling of information,” and those “pushing for structural reforms and the effective use of digital technology to pave the way for a more open, democratic society.”

In this sense, she echoed the message she’s been delivering since leaving NileTV.

“I can’t be part of the propaganda machine,” she said upon her departure. “I am not going to feed the public lies.”

But Amin didn’t have a problem serving as a cog in Mubarak’s “propaganda machine,” “feed[ing] the public lies” during a 22-year career for state television, eventually assuming the role of deputy head of NileTV. Only once it became clear the regime that had sustained her career for more than two decades was on the verge of collapse did she find a conscience and international acclaim.

Ever since her high-profile walkout from the NileTV studio, she has been lauded by gullible international media and NGOs looking for easy heroes in the disappointing aftermath of the “Arab Spring.” But she apparently sees no contradiction in telling The Guardian, “Corruption and censorship are worse today than under Mubarak” while simultaneously appearing on state television.

The celebration of Amin was all the more inappropriate given Forum 2000’s patron, Havel, of whom it must be said he cannot be assumed to know much about her sordid career or sanction her disgraceful behavior. Unlike Amin, Havel never served as the mouthpiece for an authoritarian regime. Nor was Havel a Johnny-come-lately to his country’s freedom movement.

Oldřich Černý, executive director of Forum 2000, told me Amin was invited “to attend the conference as a representative of those forces in Egypt that helped to bring down Mubarak’s government.”

But Amin’s reputation as a force for positive change has always been specious, and her latest behavior demonstrates that, far from being a voice for a responsible and independent press in post-Mubarak Egypt, she is a toady for those she claims to oppose. It’s a shame that Forum 2000, rather than give voice to genuine reformers who criticized Mubarak long before it was fashionable, lent its august platform to a shameless opportunist and poseur like Amin.

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