Shahira sat down with W Insight to talk about her 30-year career of reporting in at-risk regions.
What’s the key to success for a woman journalist reporting in risky environments?
For me, it was always about finding taboos and shattering them. Issues like female genital mutilation, sexual harassment or violence against women were always very important for me because they related to my existence. I knew that once you break a taboo it is no longer a taboo. But if you ask about a key to success, I would say being professional. You should always work with ethics and principles of journalism in mind. Factual reporting, balanced reporting, accuracy, fact-checking, bringing all voices in, I believe that builds your credibility as a journalist.
You produced many stories that didn’t sit well with Egyptian political leaders. Did
you measure the risks that you took by producing the stories?
I wasn’t really measuring anything. I just knew there were the untold stories that someone had to tell. That’s your profession. You find stories and try to give voice to the underprivileged, the downtrodden. At times it did become risky, but then I knew when I should tone down my voice a bit. There were times when it got really dangerous and I got threats from security agencies. For instance, once I did a story that ruffled the feathers of authorities. It was when security forces tried to break a sit-in of Sudanese refugees in January 2006. I got threats and for two months I just did stories about the restoration of the Sphinx, moving rumps of the statue from one place to the other. Then after two months, I thought, “Hey, if you want to continue to be a journalist, then you have to find the stories and tell them and not be intimidated by threats.”
In one of the interviews, you said that no story is worth risking your life. How do you recognize a moment when you need to take a step back?
I simply see when it gets too dangerous, for example when I get threats. Then I make this decision to take a backseat for a while, especially because I have family and kids. But then something happens and it needs to be reported. And I’ve always told the security agencies when they threatened me: “Don’t do it and I won’t report it. I only report it because it’s happening.”
It’s probably difficult to give up what you’re doing when you eventually see the real effect of your job, the influence you have, like the reporting on the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in Egypt. Your work, among others, led to the criminalization of this practice in Egypt.
Finally, in 2008 we had a groundbreaking law outlawing the practice.
How did the victory make you feel?
I felt that all of my efforts were worth it. Worth it, because they try to silence you, and when you keep revisiting the story and you are persistent, and then something happens and you feel “Yes! I was on the right track!” We did it as journalists together, so it really has to be more than one voice.
What were the biggest breakthrough moments of your career?
First of all, the law against female genital mutilation in my country in 2008. That was a victory. Another law banning virginity tests. That was during the revolution when female protesters were tested by the military to see if they were virgins. It was basically to keep women out of the public space. When I reported the story, two months later we had the ban saying that this will never happen again in Egypt. That was another huge moment for me. But also the daily victories, when you see a story published that should have been told. When you feel that it has made a difference to someone’s life. Reporting on sexual harassment and finally having the law against that. And you see how powerful journalism is and the fact that we can make a difference.
Ted Turner contacted you to come to CNN and that was also the time when you resigned from Egyptian state-owned TV. How did this move impact your career?
It’s really thanks to Ted Turner that I am where I am today. He actually contacted me because of my work at Egyptian television, because I was always trying to push the boundaries, push the envelope, raise the freedom ceiling at my channel. He asked me to come for training at the CNN center in Atlanta where I spent three weeks in 2002. At the end of the training, I was asked to be a contributor to CNN’s “Inside Africa.” So I was reporting from home, from Cairo and some of the other North African countries. For 12 years I was with CNN’s “Inside Africa” but at the same time I was with state television – I didn’t resign. It helped me with my work at state TV, because every story I did for CNN, I did a similar story for Egyptian television, raising the bar on my own channel. But then I only resigned in 2011 with the revolution. It was a historic moment. Protests were huge. Tens of thousands of protesters were out on the streets calling for the fall of the Mubarak government and state television wasn’t reporting on it. When I asked for a camera to go to Tahrir square, they said: “Go cover the pro-Mubarak, not the anti.” I said, “Well, both.” Because the anti- were much, much bigger. They said no, and then I knew I couldn’t do it anymore and I had to quit. And I joined the protesters in Tahrir square.
What differences do you see between working for international media now and when you worked for state-owned, local TV?
No difference whatsoever. With every story you do, you are writing your own portfolio, your own CV. So it doesn’t matter where – because it has your signature on it. It’s your story, no matter what the platform is. But at the state TV I had to work around and fight censorship throughout. I don’t get that when I work for foreign media. There is a lot more freedom; there is space for all voices. For instance, right now in my country, there is only one narrative. It’s the official narrative. So it’s very hard for me to work at home with local media.
In line with all the recognition and praise your work has received, you have received some criticism as well. How do you handle criticism?
If it is constructive criticism – then thank you. It helps me become a better journalist. But if it is an attack, I try not to put my personal views on my work. I try to be balanced and get different views. I am not an opinion columnist; my work is reporting the facts.
Interview by Joanna Socha
Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka
Production support: Margo Sobolewska