Ten years ago, Noha Atef started a blog exposing police officers and prisons involved in torturing Egyptians, but that blog was taken down by the authorities. Now, she tells the story of her blog and shares advice. Noha did her PhD with Birmingham City University on the interaction between citizen journalists and mainstream media. She also published a book in Arabic, entitled الإعلام الشعبي من إعلام الدولة إلى دولة الإعلام. She has over 145,000 followers on Twitter
I started blogging one year after becoming a journalist. At the time, the term “blog” was hardly familiar but I came across several websites and was intrigued by their content. As a journalist, these sites struck me because they told the stories from a subjective or personal perspective, rather than just reporting the facts.
I came across a website that guides beginners and helps them set up their own blogs, so I set up my own and began to experiment. I started posting articles on torture cases, then in 2005 I met Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdul Fattah and his wife Manal and asked him for advice on improving my blogs. At the time, Alaa was open to helping all aspiring bloggers and the political atmosphere in Egypt was different. The Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), and other opposition groups were quite vocal and many people wanted to write about human rights abuses that were taking place.
When Alaa realised that I was working on torture cases, he encouraged me and connected me with another blogger who helped improve the website.
We began to talk about issues that weren’t previously discussed in the media. There were many transgressions by the State; arrests, disappearances, torture. I started collecting reports from local and international NGOs and posting them on the blog.
At the time, I was also working as a journalist with a foreign news agency that had just opened its office in Cairo. Although I was working actively with the opposition, I would say I was more of a “monitor” than an activist myself. I would observe developments around me, analyse them, and then post stories on my blog. Over time, traffic on the website increased. I would say there were 25,000 visitors between 2006 and 2007 which was a high number at the time.
This encouraged me to be more systematic in my work and reach out directly to victims of torture and their families. We began to publish the names and photos of offending police officers whom we knew had tortured civilians. We created a page where we listed names of prisons and documented torture incidents that took place there.
It was important to keep things separate because I didn’t want my credibility as a journalist to be called into question. I wanted to prove to myself that I can be an independent journalist and a blogger at the same time.
During that time, the US was talking to the Egyptian government about the need to allow for more freedom of speech, and I think this was the reason why we had that small margin of freedom. We were left to publish our material and the mainstream media would give us nominal coverage to pretend that there was real opposition. Looking back, I would say some Egyptian media took advantage of the situation by wanting to appear open and free but they didn’t go far enough in covering the stories.
I continued to work with the foreign news agency - which I would rather not name - while developing my blog. But then someone reported me to the police and they, in turn, contacted the agency. The local management of the agency was Egyptian and they were closely affiliated with the regime, so they fired me. It did not occur to me at the time to contact their European headquarters and protest my dismissal.
Then I worked with a private newspaper that was pro-opposition. The political atmosphere in Egypt was changing and it was encouraging for me to continue working on by blog.
I maintained a complete separation between my work as a journalist and my blog and I did this by keeping the topics completely separate. As a journalist, I was covering foreign affairs and culture but as a blogger I was writing about human rights. I also never put my own name on the blog, but wrote anonymously. It was important to keep things separate because I didn’t want my credibility as a journalist to be called into question. I wanted to prove to myself that I can be an independent journalist and a blogger at the same time. Also, I don’t believe there was any contradiction between my job as a journalist and my blogging activities. At the time, I felt that both roles had a purpose -- I blogged about the things I could not report on.
My blog helped me improve my skills as a journalist because I earned my investigative skills from the stories that I covered. At the same time, some editors began to understand the growing popularity of blogging and they took advantage of the situation. They invited bloggers to work for them, but some didn’t have a background in journalism to begin with. Then Al Jazeera did a documentary about bloggers, including myself, which brought some fame but also some unwanted attention too. Some people saw the documentary and wanted to start their own blogs too just for the sake of being famous. In a way, the documentary harmed our credibility. I got harassed by people who didn’t like my blog and it got to a point where even my family was threatened, so I had to stop for a while.
Things were getting more intense at the time. First, there was the story of Emad Al Kibeer, the Egyptian cab driver who was sexually assaulted by the police. The video of his assault went viral on social media and people began to talk more openly about torture in police stations. Then, Khaled Saeed was killed in 2010 by the police and, as a blogger, I wrote about these stories because I wanted to tell people what happened and urge them to get up and do something. It was no longer a question of just telling a story.
At the same time, I got a scholarship to study in the UK and I didn’t want to blog about Egypt remotely. I tried to pass the torch on to another colleague but it was difficult to find someone who could commit to the website and maintain it.
During the five years that I’ve spent in the UK, lots has changed. So many journalists and bloggers have been jailed, including Alaa Abdul Fattah who helped me set up my original blog.
The State monitors all digital activities so if there are any bloggers out there who still want to continue their work, then I would remind them that personal safety and digital safety go hand in hand.
I don’t know who took over my website, but today if you type http://tortureinegypt.net/ you get a blog on where to buy the best Egyptian cotton! Why on earth would anyone blog about that under such a name! Then, other women started to appear on the internet with my name “Noha Atef” and pretending to be journalists. I have no idea if they are real or fake but I tried tracing them for a while and didn’t get anywhere.
Now I’m back in Egypt and to this day, seven years on, I am still blacklisted.
When I applied for a job with an international university here in Cairo, they had to send my papers to Security for approval and the response was negative.
Looking back at my blogging days, I wish I had a better system for archiving my stories. I still have most of them, but a lot of important material was lost when the website was taken over. Today, the situation has become much worse for bloggers. The State monitors all digital activities so if there are any bloggers out there who still want to continue their work, then I would remind them that personal safety and digital safety go hand in hand. They must be careful with their digital activities to protect themselves.
Noha’s advice for new bloggers:
Identify the topic first. If you’re going to start your own blog, then you should take your time first to think about what you’re going to write about. If you are a reporter, for example, you can do straight-forward reporting as a job, then use your blog to analyse the news that you report on.
Be clear about your objectives. Why do you want to set up a blog? What are your motives? Are you driven by the desire for social change? Or do you simply wish to write about stories that you don’t do at work? You could be a political reporter and use your blog for writing about culture and arts.
Identity. Are you going to reveal your identity in your blog or post anonymously? Be sure to discuss this with your editors beforehand and state clearly on your website that this is a personal site and represents your views only.
Research. If you’re writing about sensitive topics, take your time with the research and give it as much attention as you do to your work as a journalist. You don’t want anyone to question your credibility, even if the stories you’re blogging about are trivial.
Security. Learn cyber security, and when you write imagine there is a police officer standing over your shoulder. I know this is a very sad thing to say but it is the reality.