Thu, 25/04/2013

Steven Viney
Louise Sarant

This piece was written for Egypt Independent’s final weekly print edition, which was banned from going to press.

Two months before word about Egypt Independent’s potential closure first surfaced, Noor Noor, executive coordinator of the NGO Nature Conservation Egypt, discussed the loss at stake.

“Egypt Independent is one of the only Egyptian media outlets that allocates staff solely to cover environmental issues in Egypt,” he wrote. “Environmentalists all across the world follow Egypt Independent for news and updates on environmental issues in Egypt. If anything was to compromise Egypt Independent’s ability to cover environmental issues, this would be an enormous loss, locally and internationally.”

Back in 2009, when it made the conscious decision to dedicate an entire section of the newspaper to environmental and scientific issues, Egypt Independent stuck to its pledge to tell every story that matters.

For the past four years, the section’s journalists have reported in-depth on issues relating to political ecology, biodiversity, the preservation of native seeds, the struggles of farmers, habitat destruction, food sovereignty, energy, scientific discoveries, urban planning, solid waste management, industrial pollution, and the controversial drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, while the rest of the Egyptian media has provided cursory coverage at best.

Some of the environmental violations are plainly visible but many other tragedies, such as destructive government policies, are less conspicuous and can easily go unnoticed. While kilometers-long oil slicks floating along the Nile are easy to spot, detrimental governmental policies are often unknown outside of ministerial offices.

Egypt Independent’s small but dedicated environment team has been committed since its inception to bringing into the public purview issues large and small that impact Egyptians and their environment.

One important feature in this section has been the endangered species series. Threatened local flora and fauna such as the African sacred ibis, the Egyptian tortoise and even various medicinal plants were featured to bring attention to their potential extinction.

However, now, as Egypt Independent receives news that this print issue will be its last under the leadership of Al-Masry Media Corporation, the series seems to have turned inward. It now appears that environmental journalism in Egypt has been shifted from the “vulnerable” to the “endangered” category.

Traditional media outlets grant little to no coverage of environmental issues and often treat them as secondary to mainstream political dialogue, as well as the revolution’s demands of “bread, freedom and social justice.”

But, by engaging with environmentalists and spending time with those most affected by environmental issues — often rural Egyptians, who themselves tend to garner little media attention — it becomes clear that environmental issues and political concerns are very closely intertwined.

For many Egyptians, the majority of whom live in rural areas, being able to access clean water, land to farm and resources to build a home, as well as natural resources and food security, are essentially what the revolution was about.

By extension, this leads us to believe access to natural resources is one of the most fundamental human rights issues of our time, regardless of whether the effects are indirect, through wars fought over oil resources, or direct, because hydraulic fracturing has made one’s drinking water flammable.

We believe the majority of Egyptians are less interested in who rules the country than equal and free access to the aforementioned resources required to sustain life, particularly when more than 40 percent lived below the poverty line of US$2 a day under the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2009, according to the World Bank.

Yet many of Egypt’s environmental activists and civil society members continue to voice frustration that a majority of Egyptians and those in power struggle to discern the direct link between the politics of nature — political ecology — and the problems now facing Egypt.

Hence, many environmental issues often fall by the wayside, solely because they are called “environmental issues.”

We believe environmental concerns are not just a luxury for the well-off to worry about, and we work hard to make our readers understand that these issues touch every level of society.

For example, there is nothing luxurious about demanding access to clean water and healthy food. And what is overpopulation, other than an innate awareness that one’s equal access to certain natural resources, essential for survival, is being threatened?

We believe that if issues like these were to be treated and discussed as such, Egypt would be better equipped to address its network of issues holistically. By embracing naturalist ideas, one’s perspective of the commonly referenced but loosely understood issues that appear to be threatening the country, such as economic issues, can be broadened.

Mahmoud al-Mansy, spokesperson of the Sons of the Soil NGO, has fought for farmers’ rights and access to resources since the mid-1990s, when his family fell victim to the common practice of land grabbing. He says the most important aspect of environmental journalism is that it’s dedicated to focusing on contentious issues over the long term.

“Our problems are not stories that appeal to headline journalists,” says Mansy. “There is no story. There is no catchy issue.”

Problems facing farmers are not well-addressed in the media, he says.

“Our very existence from the day I was born is the issue. It is taken for granted that we will remain poor and suffering so the mainstream debate can continue to take place,” he says.

Part of the issue is time, he adds.

“Nobody is interested in covering agricultural land and water issues because it is too time-consuming, and at the end of the day, it won’t sell as many papers as the death of one urban boy,” Mansy says. “But environmental issues are systematically killing our rural youth and destroying our lives every day.”

Ezzat Naiem, founder of the Zabaleen rights NGO Spirit of the Youth, elaborates on Mansy’s point, saying the key ingredient is “care.”

“Although I know in journalism there is supposed to be a professional distance between journalists and the subject matter, covering issues related to the Zabaleen — not sensationally, as with the documentary ‘Zabaleen Dreams’ — requires persistence over long periods of time, with the knowledge that there is little positive gain. I believe this requires real care in the matter,” Naiem says.

Amr Ali, managing director of Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, has been a strong supporter of Egypt Independent.

“I must emphasize the importance of environmentalism journalism in Egypt, although I don’t agree with calling it environmental journalism. This type of journalism has greatly helped isolated activist groups around the country raise awareness of the important issues Egypt is facing with regard to natural resources — issues that few people were aware of before,” he says.

Ali says the environmental focus helped nonprofits pressure authorities.

“It helped greatly by quickly building public contempt toward certain topics, allowing for groups to put pressure on those responsible,” he says. “However, secondly, and more importantly, is the constant effort of this type of journalism to expose instances of corruption in the most unlikely of places — places that people were largely completely unaware of after the revolution.”

Ali adds that in a country after a major uprising or revolution, “it usually takes years of education to instill within the public awareness of their rights with regard to these resources because it is their national heritage. Egypt Independent was a huge catalyst in trying to fill this void.”

Noor says the Egyptian press occasionally has a piece or section dedicated to environmental news, even governmental publications, but the difference between English and Arabic coverage of such issues is that between breaking a story and covering an issue in-depth.

“Whereas, occasionally, the Arabic press will just touch on the news or report a specific event, it has yet to engage in investigative journalism when it comes to environmental issues,” Noor says. “That, I think, is Egypt Independent’s biggest contribution to the local media.”