2011 International Press Freedom Award
“The government is trying to spread fear among the population…but I don’t think this will work, because the high dam of fear has already collapsed yesterday, and the water is just flooding massively. The people have broken this fear already,” Egyptian journalist Mohamed Abdelfattah told the CBC. It was the day after the massive demonstration in Alexandria that would mark Egypt’s inclusion in protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa – now known as the Arab Spring.
The demonstration on Jan. 25, 2011, was a beginning, but also part of a larger story about human rights and police corruption. The wave of discontent that broke the dam of fear had been building for months.
On June 6, 2010, two policemen attacked Khaled Said, a young Egyptian man, in an Internet café. Witnesses reported the officers dragged Said outside and fatally beat him. Officials said the cause of death was asphyxiation from swallowing a concealed packet of narcotics. But given that Said had recently helped circulate a video allegedly showing local officers divvying up the spoils of a drug bust, the finding was questionable. (In October, the officers were convicted of manslaughter; evidence indicated the drugs were forced into Said’s mouth after he died.)
Abdelfattah, who had completed citizen journalism training with the International Centre for Journalists and had been blogging about human rights violations since early 2010, blogged about Said’s “torture-to-death,” as he calls it. By finding and showing eyewitness accounts, Abdelfattah blew away the government narrative regarding Said’s death.
In November 2010, Abdelfattah’s work helped draw international attention to the case of Ahmed Shaaban, also allegedly murdered by Alexandria police. An investigation was launched and later dropped, but the case was not forgotten: “I was happy to see Ahmed Shaaban’s picture carried along other victims’ during the January 25th demonstrations,” says Abdelfattah, who was reporting for news website Ahram Online that day.
Demonstrators numbered 10,000 to 15,000 when police began tear-gassing. Officers attacked him and others hiding in a building, Abdelfattah told the BBC. “I kept telling them that I was a journalist but they didn’t care about this at all. I was severely beaten and my glasses were broken.”
Abdelfattah was never charged, never told why he was detained for seven hours in an underground cell. The experience only strengthened his resolve. Like many of his fellow bloggers and journalists, he went right to work, reporting as the Arab Spring swept across his country.
Writer Cara Smusiak is managing editor of Canadian Family magazine.
International Press Freedom Awards
Each year CJFE bestows two International Press Freedom Awards in recognition of the courage of journalists who work tirelessly - often risking their lives - so that the news media remain free.