When she embarked on an investigation into the murder of the alleged killers of Italian journalist Giulio Regeni, Basma Mostafa knew she would face resistance from her editors and pro-government supporters. But the Egyptian journalist found herself the victim of a vicious campaign to tarnish her personal reputation. Although she has no regrets, she offers some words of caution to journalists who might find themselves in a similar situation.
The trouble began in April 2016, when I published a video report on Giulio Regeni, the Italian graduate student who was abducted and brutally murdered in Cairo in January 2016.
I was working with an independent - but pro-government - website. I was mainly writing on women’s rights. But I would often work with the investigations’ unit on in-depth special reports.
I was in the US when I heard the news that Egyptian police announced they had killed five Egyptian men whom they said were responsible for the death Regeni. At the time, It was widely believed that Regeni was tortured to death by the Egyptian police.
I decided to investigate this story as soon as I returned to Egypt. Although the website I was working with was pro-government, I wanted to try and work on this story anyway. The Editor-in-chief said this was futile because the five men were criminals and had several cases against them. Still, she gave me the green light to work on the story, and said that she would decide whether to publish it or not after I was finished.
When I finished the story, I had the feeling that it will not be published, as there was a general mood of anxiety about how the security apparatus would react to it. I reached out to the head of my department, who had as much authority as the editor-in-chief, and he assured me that it would be published.
Despite my editor’s assurances, I was very anxious so I decided to make a copy of the video on a hard disk and I took it home with me. I had decided that if my editors choose not to publish the story, then I would go ahead and publish it on my own.
"They spent weeks writing that I had gotten into journalism through nepotism and what they described as “dirty means”.
When the story was out
The story was published the next day. But it was removed one hour after it was uploaded on the website. I was at home that day. But then I was summoned to the office and informed that I was suspended from work, pending an investigation.
And as soon as I entered the office, the editor-in-chief hurled insults at me, calling me an idiot and mocking the quality of my journalism, and much worse. I had to defend myself and told her it was unprofessional of her address me like that. I said she had no right to admonish me for publishing the story because this was the editor’s decision.
The next day, I was transferred to another department and it was decided that my name would not be published on any political stories - especially the ones related to the armed forces or the police. I did not protest the decision because I knew they were trying to pressure me to resign and I didn’t want to bow down. For a whole month, I was the head of a department with no staff, and I had nothing to do except show up to work from 9 to 5.
But one day, despite the decision not to let me cover political stories, I was sent to cover demonstrations against the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. As soon as I arrived at Tahrir Square, I was arrested and taken State Security headquarters. I was interrogated about my report on the alleged killers of Regeni. They wanted to know my sources. But a few hours later, they released me because the Italian state news agency released a statement about my arrest and the Italian public prosecutor had called the Egyptian authorities.
When I came out, I discovered that the website did not release a statement of support until I was released, and that they only did so because my colleagues had threatened to release a statement of their own, exposing the management. So I decided it was time to resign.
The editor-in-chief started publishing long posts about me on her personal Facebook account. Although she did not mention my name, it was obvious that the posts were about me. She insinuated that I had had an affair with the head of my department and that this was the reason he published my story. This smear campaign went on for about two months.
I ignored the personal insults. But one day, I decided to respond a different post on her account. The context was professional, but basically, I pointed out that video crews working for that website were also made to work for its sister organisation and without extra pay. What followed was a barrage of negative posts about me, not just by the editor-in-chief, but many of her supporters too.
Almost none of them dared to publish my name because I would have filed a slander case against them. But they spent weeks writing that I had gotten into journalism through nepotism and what they described as “dirty means”.
The worst attack came from a journalist who mentioned me by name and claimed that the website only hired me out of pity, because of my “poor social situation”. He also claimed that I was flirting with the owner of the website (although I was a married woman) and that I was involved in many scandals, including an affair with the head of my department.
He removed that post after he received a barrage of criticisms from people, telling him his post was unprofessional and a cheap shot. Unfortunately, female journalists are seen as easy targets because people are prepared to believe any negative rumours about their reputation.
I was furious and I wanted to respond, but my friends advised me against that, and I did see their point. I was fighting for the right to publish a story and for journalistic ethics, whereas my bullies were making personal attacks because there is nothing easier than undermining a woman by tarnishing her reputation.
"There is nothing easier than undermining a woman by tarnishing her reputation."
Although the attacks have stopped, they affect me to this day. Recently, I was about to start a new job, but the editors suddenly withdrew the offer, and I found out later that it was because of what had happened at the website where I was working. Today, I work as a freelancer and I hope that things will eventually improve.
My husband, who is a lawyer, warned me from the start not to write anything on social media about this incident because he knew there would be consequences. But I was enraged and I couldn’t keep silent. I am happy that I managed to publish this story on a pro-government website. I consider it an achievement!
I have no regrets over working on that story because I felt it did have an impact. The Egyptian authorities admitted that the five murdered men were not Regeni’s killers. But, unfortunately, in this profession there is always a price to pay - whether in your private life or your safety.
Basma’s advice for dealing with cyberbullies
- If you find yourself the victim of a cyberbullying campaign, do not interact with the bullies because it will only aggravate the situation and exhaust you. Even if the bullies stoop to slander, do not respond in kind.
- Be cautious about what you say and who you say it to because it can have unexpected consequences.
- If the bullies know you in real life, and have information about where you live or places that you go to, then be sure to inform your trusted friends about your movements. Try to avoid the places where you normally hang out for some time, until you feel that the campaign against you had died down.
- Let your work be your answer to cyberbullies, the fact that I published my story and made a difference in the case is stronger than hitting back with slurs.