A group of Egyptian journalists are being trained on how to cover presidential elections in a fairer manner. Mustafa El-Menshawy joins them
As a training workshop on covering multi-candidate presidential elections began, the participating journalists -- 21 young people from different local outlets including this reporter -- were somewhat anxious. "Some of us initially thought the trainers would be CIA agents paid by USAID," said Rasha Hegazi, a reporter from the independent weekly Al-Fagr. Conducted by the International Centre for Journalists (ICJ), a US-based independent group, the course is being financed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Hegazi said the course material itself quickly resolved participants' suspicions, and in the end most of the journalists found the course to be "extremely useful". The course's stated aim is to teach journalists how to be objective while covering elections. The occasion is the first ever multi-candidate poll in Egypt's history.
According to Mike Beardsley, an American journalist and one of the ICJ trainers, the course attempted to drive home "the necessity of getting journalists to talk to people about their concerns and hopes for elections, and convey these concerns to candidates and officials."
All in all, ICJ intends to train approximately 240 journalists working in Cairo, Alexandria and Minya. During the course, Beardsley constantly reminded the participants that journalists should depend much more on "real people" for their coverage. They should thus reduce their dependence on official statements or events -- a common feature of most newspaper coverage of elections in Egypt.
The workshop had initially come under a heavy wave of media criticism. Opposition newspaper Al-Ahrar, for one, claimed that the "ICJ training... is part of the US-based organisation's suspicious activities in Egypt, with the US seeking to influence Egyptian elections." The paper said the ICJ has also trained journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq, the obvious insinuation being that American forces invaded those two countries.
The paper provided no evidence to substantiate the claim that the group was involved in "suspicious" activities. Denying any suspicious intent, ICJ trainers also said that their training courses also took place in locations as diverse as Eastern Europe and China.
And while another independent newspaper, the weekly Al-Osbou, claimed that the Press Syndicate had asked its members not to participate in ICJ training because it served American and Israeli interests in Egypt. Ahmed El-Naggar of the syndicate's council said that claim was "baseless".
The rumours, however, had their effect. For the most part, journalists in Alexandria and Minya avoided the course; although more than 40 people had originally registered, only five people showed up for the Alexandria course, and two in Minya.
In Cairo, however, the dynamic was different, with at least 15 journalists in attendance out of the 21 who had registered. "We are journalists and feel mature enough to decide for ourselves whether or not this training is against our interests," said Israa El-Hakeem of Nisf Al-Donia magazine. El-Hakeem said she needed the training since this was her first attempt at covering presidential elections.
Other Cairo-based organisations have also been training journalists to cover elections. The head of the Egyptian Organisation for Training and Human Rights, Hazem Mounir, said his group has trained 100 journalists in cooperation with the government-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). "The organisation also received a 71,000 euros grant from the European Union to train more than 200 other journalists on covering elections," Mounir said.
Egyptian journalists are not used to professional election coverage, he said. "According to our research, media coverage of elections was poor, lacking professionalism, objectivity or accuracy," said Mounir, himself a veteran freelance journalist.
The Press Syndicate -- which has about 5,000 members -- is also holding a one-week training workshop before the 7 September presidential elections. According to El-Naggar, Egyptian journalists like Salah Eissa and prominent intellectuals like Tarek El-Bishri may be leading some of the sessions.
Analysts and human rights activists spoken to by Al-Ahram Weekly were not surprised at the suspicions surrounding the training. New programmes carried out or financed by foreign groups have usually sparked off unjustified controversy, they said.
Hazef Abu Seada of the NCHR said the criticism, though expected, was unfortunate since journalists -- when it comes to covering elections -- lack the tools to do their job properly. "Look at our newspapers, for example," he said. "They are not very professional and are full of hypocrisy. Just look at all the news of, and praise for, Mubarak's achievements that still dominate state- run newspapers, with remarkably less space for the other nine candidates competing for presidency."
Over the past few weeks, there has been much talk of whether the recently passed Law 174/2005 on organising presidential elections -- which stipulates that mass media should adhere to principles of "equality among candidates" -- would be enforced. On Monday, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights studies said they would be monitoring the media to see just how well the law was being followed.
According to the NCHR's Abu Seada, "people need to know facts, as well as the platforms, of all the candidates. These should be provided to the public in a critical manner, which journalists have failed to do so far."
For Abu Seada, training -- no matter where the funding comes from -- would be one way of changing this.