Reporter Rawyah Rageh: ‘Al Jazeera was a dirty word in Egypt’

Al Jazeera's Rawyah Rageh at Columbia's Journalism School. Photo by Umair Irfan.

By Zohreen Adamjee

Rawyah Rageh, an Al Jazeera reporter who covers the Arab world, stood on a rooftop in Alexandria, Egypt with her camera crew on Jan. 28, toward the end of the country’s pro-democracy protests. Rageh and her crew were sending live pictures of the crowd’s reaction to a speech that President Hosni Mubarak had just given when they suddenly realized that the protest calls had changed to pro-Mubarak calls. “They started throwing stones at one another, military fired…it was suddenly a mess,” she said.

She also saw that the demonstrators had noticed her Al Jazeera crew.  She realized that their lives were in danger and that any minute, pro-Mubarak forces would be coming after them.

A rooftop in Egypt covering the revolution of the decade was a far cry from Rageh’s days at Columbia Journalism School where she graduated in 2006. She spoke to students at Columbia J-school’s student center on May 4th and told us about covering Egypt during their revolution.

Students hung on every word Rageh said, many of us imagining that in just four years, perhaps we would be covering a story of such importance.

Rageh described how she quickly left the rooftop with her crew, and headed  down to the apartment of the family who gave them access to their roof. Members of the family quickly informed them that pro-Mubarak thugs had been going door to door, asking where Al Jazeera was. “They’re looking for you,” they were told.

“The family started hiding us behind kitchen closets, and hiding our equipment for us…” said Rageh.

“Al Jazeera was a dirty word in Egypt during this time,” Rageh explained. In Egypt and all around the world, people had been either crediting or blaming the network for the revolutions that were sweeping the Arab world. Al Jazeera’s early reports enabled pro-democracy forces in other countries to see what was going on, and draw inspiration from the peaceful protests.

“It is Al Jazeera’s moment,” stated an article in the New York Times, “the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments.”

With full knowledge that her country and the world regarded Al Jazeera to have such a strong hand in the uprising, Regah sat terrified while in hiding. She and her team stayed hidden for nine hours. “It was a night that taught me a lot about myself,” she said. “I usually hyperventilate but I remained calm.”

Despite the harrowing conditions Rageh described, the students listening to Regah were inspired. “I’ve always wanted to be a foreign correspondent and hearing her talk helped me cement that notion,” said one current student, Umair Irfan. “But I think I have a more tempered view of the job and a slightly better appreciation of the effort and risk involved.”

The risk was overwhelming, but Rageh was fortunately still able to remain in contact with her team in Doha during the nine hours she was in hiding. “They kept calling ‘Can we fly you a helicopter to get you out?’ That’s how intense the siege was.”

Regah, who is an Egyptian, is no stranger to unsafe conditions; she is currently the English Iraq reporter for Al Jazeera. In her previous job with the Associated Press she covered the Arab world extensively.  She has also covered countries such as Saudia Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen and was one of the first journalists to cover the conflict in Darfur. She just happened to be in Egypt during the revolution. But the crisis in Egypt was one that was very different for her. In fact, after she left Alexandria that night, she was advised by Al Jazeera to go into a longer period of hiding.

Five days passed. She grew anxious not being able to report and finally called the Doha headquarters. “I’m in Tahrir Square. Do you want me to report or not?’…I forced my way back on the air. Even if I got arrested or prosecuted, I knew there was no going back. What was the worst that was going to happen?” she said. “It was a regime on their way out.”

Despite Rageh’s perseverance and courageous reporting, with her accomplishments came set backs.

“You do a good job at one story and people keep comparing it to that story,” says Rageh. Though Al Jazeera did an exceptional job of covering the Egypt revolution, many reporters have received criticism for the way they have covered the Arab crisis since. “I’m now being called anti-Kurd because I haven’t covered the Kurds like I did Egypt. People go on the streets now and think Al Jazeera will be there on the first day.”

She explained the difficulties Al Jazeera faces in their coverage. “Do you know how many reporters we sent to Bahrain and got sent back?” she asked.

Despite the fire Al Jazeera has come under, students were sympathetic to their challenges and felt their respect for the network grow stronger as a result of Rageh’s talk. Student Kumutha Ramanathan said, “The talk gave me a more intimate understanding of how difficult it is to broadcast live in a conflict zone. I think news agencies, such as Al Jazeera, should be heralded for making such an effort.”

Rageh continued to explain the difficulty Al Jazeera has faced in their coverage. She said governments have since realized the role Al Jazeera played during the Egypt revolution and it has become extremely difficult to cover Arab protests. A few reporters did make it into Bahrain, but got chased out. Offices were raided in Yemen, and now four Yemese journalists are in exile from their own country. And the fact that there are so many uprisings taking place now – Yemen Libya, Syria and Bahrain – Al Jazeera’s resources are being stretched out much more than they were when they were covering Egypt. Rageh understood that criticism is inevitable however.

Perhaps the most important part of Rageh’s talk was explaining that we should never assume anything. Despite being fully prepared to report anything that happened, up until the final moments, however, Rageh was never completely sure that Mubarak would leave.  A week before the first protests in Egypt, she had written to her editor, “I guarantee you, this will not be the protest that will topple the Mubarak regime.”

Syrian student Hala Droubi says could completely relate to Rageh’s initial reaction to the protests. “As a viewer when they had the protests on Jan. 25, I had the same thoughts. Sometimes it’s good to have a good understanding of a culture, but sometimes that understanding can blind you.”

The experience of being blinded humbled Rageh as a reporter. “You assume you know what will happen. It was my country; I grew up there. It’s a lesson in keeping an open mind and not being dogmatic and always being prepared for things to happen.”

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