Journalism for Democracy: An Analysis of the International Center of Journalists’ Work in Egypt

By Naguib Bebawi Post date: May 15, 2014


The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) has been operating in the Middle East North Africa region since 2005. In 2010, the ICFJ started a program training citizen journalists in Egypt with the majority of the funds provided by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the Department of State. According to program director Natasha Tynes, now a former employee of the ICFJ, the purpose of the program "aimed at raising professional standards and helping citizen journalists gain reporting skills and digital know how.”

Following the program’s full implementation, the Egyptian government “officially registered a national association of citizen journalists.” The funds were used to create a board [1]

consisting of professional journalist, and legal aides, all of whom were Egyptian. A partnership was also created with the International Canadian College and the state run Al Ahram newspaper. The state of freedom of expression and press had been gradually improving in Egypt prior to the eruption of protests at Tahrir Square in January 2011, many analysts today credit the utilization of social media outlets by citizen journalists to criticize the Mubarak regime as one of the main vehicles for mobilization. However, the ensuing instability rendered NGOs, most of whom prodemocratic, vulnerable to harsh criticism and scrutiny across the country. In June 2013 following the election of the now deposed Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammed Morsi, a Cairo criminal court convicted 43 NGO workers, including 3 American and 2 Egyptians who worked at ICFJ , of operating without a documented license and receiving illegal foreign funding. The case sparked international outrage, souring relations between Egypt and the U.S. and inflaming fears of the potential role of foreign funding in internal political affairs. While the ICFJ maintains it is not a political organization, it was one of five NGOs banned by this verdict.

The other four, known for their overt democracy promotion included Freedom House, International Democratic Institute, National Democratic Institute, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation. This policy exists till this day. Since the fall of Mubarak in 2011, the removal of Morsi in 2013, and now, the rise of [Minister of Defense] General Abdel Fattah AlSisi, freedom of speech and press has been nonexistent in Egypt. The fact that the ICFJ program never quite materialized under the ban reflects how autocratic regimes perceive an expansion of rights as an existential threat. The experience was nonetheless valuable and offers lessons for future initiatives in states with similar conditions:

● NGOs working in countries without strong democratic institutions and rule of law must be extremely vigilant.
● Transitional periods are tremendously risky – and may not be the right time for a rush of NGO activity.
● Don’t assume the law is sacrosanct.
● Build a loyal local constituency.
● Be conservative in what you propose to funders.

The ICFJ in Egypt

Right before and after the Arab Spring, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) saw tremendous opportunity to help Egyptian journalists produce investigative pieces and to train bloggers and other citizen journalists and link them with mainstream media. For ICFJ, there was "so much potential to build vigorous, independent media in Egypt," said ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan. For other nongovernment organizations (NGOs), there was a unique opening to build strong democratic institutions and human rights protections.

The project was created to promote the concept of citizen journalism, where members of the public play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information through traditional and nontraditional media outlets.

Professional journalists participating in the program learn more about the concept of citizen journalism, including: citizen journalism best practices, ethical issues in dealing with citizen journalists and their content and the latest new media tools for citizen and professional journalists to achieve more exciting and interactive media content.

Professional and citizen journalists also receive capacity building on a variety of social, gender, environmental and political issues of importance to the general Egyptian population. Professional journalists also help citizen journalists produce stories on social, gender, environmental and political issues of importance. These stories are published/broadcast in/on participating media organizations’ websites, newspapers, radio and TV programs.

Local Network

In order to get started in Egypt, the ICFJ turned to its regional network for recommendations on how to tailor this project for Egypt's needs. Jordanian journalists recommended the ICFJ should work with local, professional journalists and the ICFJ conquered. In an interview conducted with Natasha Tynes, the program director in Egypt, it was revealed that the ICFJ worked alongside with El Youm El Sabaa newspaper, and the Canadian International College in Egypt.

After receiving a grant from DRL, veteran Egyptian journalist Yehia Ghane was appointed ICFJ Country Director and supervised an entirely Egyptian staff. The project was supported by an advisory board comprised of top editors of Egyptian media and a legal team well versed in Egyptian media law to help participants stay within the country’s legal framework yet still produce top quality investigative work. Potential participants were selected based on level of interest they showed in journalism. Tynes added that the candidates were mainly selected based on online presence usually in the form of blogs, websites, or those with a sizeable following on Twitter. The group now had to gain legal status in order to operate under the Mubarak government.

Laws Are Not Always Straightforward in Autocracies

In her testimony before Congress, Joyce Barnathan clarified that ICFJ has been working in Egypt since 2005, with the complete knowledge of the government. She went on to add that the ICFJ "applied for registration from the start—and shortly before our offices were raided, we gave the government full details about all of our programs. We always have formal contracts with prestigious universities or news organizations, which are registered to carry out our programs. In 2011, our lawyer recommended that we open an office, a legal requirement for registration. We had conducted no activities in this office while we waited for final approval." [2]

At the heart of this matter is a dispute between the U.S. and Egyptian governments over funding for NGO activity. The Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation was angered that the U.S. gave funds to NGOs instead of to her ministry. In my interview with Program Director Tynes, a similar sentiment was echoed, "they simply wanted to bury us in the bureaucractic process but they never intended to afford us legal status."


When the Egyptian Revolution broke out in January 2011, not many could have predicted the fall of the Mubarak government. The main demands of the protesters were "bread, freedom, and social justice." It was precisely the issue of freedom that attracted the ICFJ to Egypt. While the project never actually took off, the initial assessment that training citizen journalist would help "improve the lives of the average Egyptian citizen by raising awareness to social issues, and strengthen the state of civil society" was indeed accurate. As is now widely known, the protests were largely organized online by the very same type of individuals the ICFJ was interested in training, socially active youth. It is almost impossible to isolate the impact of social media tools from the general swirl of events that set off the popular uprisings across the Middle East, there is little doubt that they provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support against police abuse, torture and the Mubarak government’s permanent emergency laws allowing people to be jailed without charges. From documenting police brutality and crackdowns on dissent, to the simple act of chronicling dissent itself, citizen journalists have paved the way for traditional media to follow.

Transitional Period and Muslim Brotherhood Rule

The Cairo Criminal Court slammed 43 NGO workers — including 19 Americans, 16 Egyptians, along with Germans, Serbs, Norwegians, Palestinians, and Jordanians — with prison sentences ranging from one to five years and 1,000 Egyptian pound fines in convictions on June 4 in the so called foreign funding case. The case, which dragged on for a year and a half, followed indictments in February 2012 accusing staff of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of working for unlicensed institutions and receiving illegal funding.

One of the most severe crackdowns on Egyptian civil society in recent memory, the case is a microcosm of larger failures. For Egypt, it is a continuation of Mubarakera paranoid thinking and sham justice within the Egyptian state apparatus. Both are now used actively by the overthrown Mohammed Morsi regime, and current government led by Coup leader Abdelfattah el Sisi or given a pass as they serve the regime’s purposes in tightening its control over the state.

The case furthermore exemplifies the duality of Egypt’s simultaneous resentment and dependency on Western powers.

Implications for the Future of Freedom of Assembly in Egypt

Egypt has seen an increasingly hostile environment to freedom of expression and assembly over the past three months, said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), “What we are seeing here is either the result of pressure exerted by the Egyptian authorities on the media, or a demonstration of zealous self censorship,” said FIDH president Karim Lahidji in the statement. “But promoting freedom of expression and guaranteeing freedom of the press is what we’d rather expect from the interim authorities if they really want to stand out from the authoritarian line followed by their predecessors.”

Mohamed Adel, a member of 6 April Youth Movement’s political bureau and a member of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, also saw an increase in violations on the freedom of expression under the current interim government, saying that the police had returned to some of its older practices of closely monitoring activists, even those not belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. He also pointed to the draft protest law as a means by which the government would seek to crack down on the freedom of assembly.

Lessons Learned

ICFJ president released a list of "lessons learned" from the Egyptian experiment:

• NGOs working in countries without strong democratic institutions and rule of law must be extremely vigilant. We learned that any time a government official calls in an employee for questioning, you must take it very seriously. Hire good lawyers and bring them along. The questions may seem innocuous, but the process is anything but.

• Transitional periods are tremendously risky – and may not be the right time for a rush of NGO activity. The Arab Spring appeared to signal a new era, but in effect the Mubarak holdovers still controlled many levers, including the judiciary – and it turns out, much of the media. It’s hard not to be euphoric when societies open up, but it tends to cloud the dicey reality on the ground.

• Don’t assume the law is sacrosanct. The law required that we open an office to get registration. We were later slapped with a lawsuit for operating illegally in the country because we opened an office. And the verdict was purely political. Judges ignored the facts and rubber stamped the prevailing political view. We faced ridiculous charges such as conspiring to destabilize Egypt with the intent of dividing the country into separate nations. In other words, don’t expect a fair trial in a politically motivated case. You may fight a great legal battle based on the facts, and discover the facts are irrelevant in this kind of confrontation.

• Build a loyal local constituency. The authorities whipped up a media frenzy against the NGOs in Egypt. The fact is, many Egyptians have benefitted from NGO activities. Let’s identify those in the power structure who want our services. Clearly the media needs ICFJ training so that it doesn’t do the dirty work of politicians – and instead serves the public with reliable information.

• NGOs should join forces on the ground. Collectively, NGOs have more clout than alone. We need to stay in touch with one another. Perhaps the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) can help do this.

• Listen for disputes among governments. We had no idea that the U.S. and Egyptian governments were in a fight over funds for NGOs. That triggered the criminal charges. We need more transparency from governments on issues that could directly affect the wellbeing of our organization and employees.

• Be conservative in what you propose to funders. Be certain that your goals are achievable and will not put you in a dangerous position. How can you tell? The best judges of what activities should and should not be carried out are local experts and consultants.

• Make sure that you have taken all possible security precautions, especially cyber security. In today’s world, it is easy for oppressive governments and hostile groups to intercept communications that can later be used against you. (This wasn’t an issue for us in Egypt, but we were extremely careful in our written and phone communications with staffers, lawyers, and others. It has been used against NGOs in other circumstances.) This situation is only going to get worse, as governments and crime syndicates hire hackers to track down journalists.

• The laws concerning NGO activities are confusing – and sometimes contradictory. So NGOs need to be extremely cautious.[3]

Why similar projects should be funded in the future?

The case could be made that the ICFJ suffered from the strained relationship between the US and Egyptian government. However, the fact that the ICFJ was included in the same category as prodemocracy

NGOs such Freedom House highlight the influence free journalism has on autocratic regimes. As Natasha Tynes put it, “restrictive regimes are afraid of opening the door to freedom of expression because it might challenge their authorities.” The impact citizen journalism has had on the Arab Spring is a perfect example of the power of free media. If similar efforts were to be carried out in other states with comparable conditions, an equally revolutionary outcome may prove to be worth the costs.


[1]"ICFJ's Work in Egypt | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." ICFJ's Work in Egypt | ICFJ -International Center for Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

[2]"ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan Testifies Before Congress on Egypt Verdict | ICFJ - International Center for Journalists." N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

[3]"Crackdown in Egypt: Lessons Learned by the International Center For Journalists | ICFJ -International Center for Journalists." N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.