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Sunday, October 4, 2009
Global Journalism Toolbox

Citizen Journalism in Egypt

By Bruce C. Swaffield

So much for citizen journalism in Egypt. One blogger in Port Said learned that being honest comes at a very high price. Tamer Mabrouk was only trying to help his community when he decided to expose some local problems. It cost him his job and his apartment.

To make matters worse, now he has to pay more than $7,500 for simply revealing the truth.

The story began last year when Mabrouk, an avid blogger, published several pictures of toxic chemicals being dumped into the Suez Canal and an adjoining lake. In subsequent posts, he also talked about poor working conditions at one of the industrial plants in Port Said and mentioned a protest by the employees. He did not, however, name the company.

A short time later, Mabrouk’s reports were picked up by one of the daily newspapers, and they identified the plant as “the death factory in Port Said.”

By now, it was no secret that the company in question was Trust Chemical Industries, where Mabrouk was employed. Soon he was fired and was evicted from his apartment because he couldn’t pay the rent.

In June 2008, TCI filed a lawsuit against Mabrouk for defamation and libel. Then the government got involved. Mabrouk was arrested the next month as he went to the factory to collect his paycheck. But things got worse. Officials began to monitor Mabrouk’s cyber activities — with the authority to shut down the blog if necessary — and police also arrested the owner of the company that sold the Web site to Mabrouk.

The suit finally came to court Jan. 20, and Mabrouk was found guilty. He appealed and, on May 26, an appellate court upheld the earlier decision.

He remains unemployed, yet Mabrouk has been ordered to pay a court fine of $450 as well as $7,200 in compensatory damages to TCI.

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiéres) has come to Mabrouk’s aid. They have provided enough money for him and his family to get by for a few months. After that, Mabrouk doesn’t know what will happen. See the RSF coverage at tinyurl.com/ozpwfh

“I wanted to create a blog, above all to denounce corruption in Egypt,” Mabrouk told RSF. “It was an attack on President Mubarak in Port Said [in September 1999 during a tour of industrial projects in the area] that made me start the blog. There was a big difference between the official story and what actually happened. … I then denounced the abuses by Trust Chemical Industries, and the problems quickly started.

“None of this changes my desire to continue blogging, despite the threats I get,” he added. “It is not a personal matter. It is a fight for freedom of expression. It is also a way for me to defend my country against completely unscrupulous companies.”

Both the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Mosawah Association for Human Rights in Port Said have offered legal assistance. Rawda Ahmed, an attorney for ANHRI, said, “This case aims to silence the voice of a blogger who is writing about the crime of polluting a lake that connects many cities and governorates in Egypt. The photos and the documents being published by the blogger are evidence of a very dangerous human rights violation. [These] should lead to an investigation of the company that is threatening the health of millions of Egyptians and, at the same time, arbitrarily firing hundreds of contracted workers.”

Not without irony in this whole incident is that the name of Mabrouk’s Web site is “The Truth.”

See the pollution in Port Said for yourself. Go to Mabrouk’s blog at elhakika.blogspot.com and scroll down to watch a startling video done by an Egyptian TV station. You may not understand the language, but each picture is worth more than a thousand words.

“I will continue what I started,” Mabrouk said to ANHRI, “and will not stand helpless in front of the influence of this company which threatens our lives and suppresses its workers.”

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