Egyptian television anchor Shahira Amin's sudden resignation on February 3 from state-run Nile TV came as a shock amid the ongoing protests and highlighted the country's restrictive media environment. Amin was considered one of the most high-profile women in Egyptian public life, having spent the last 22 years with Nile TV and rising to become deputy director of the channel's English-language broadcasts.
She attributed her departure to her disenchantment with Nile TV, which she says came under pressure from the Egyptian Interior Ministry. After her action was followed by others in Egyptian media, she said: "The fear barrier has finally been broken." She spoke to RFE/RL's Joseph Hammond.
RFE/RL: At Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty we broadcast to countries where there is even less freedom than in Egypt. In some of these countries state-media personalities are powerful figures, but controlled by the state. What is your message to state-media workers in unfree societies?
Shahira Amin: I just want to tell them never put their integrity on the line. As a journalist we have to uphold the principles of journalism to report objectively, credibly, in a nonbiased way, to be transparent at times. I have managed to do this over the 22 years with Nile TV because the freedom ceiling [at Nile TV] was higher than at most of the other Arabic state TV [channels]. I never had a problem; I never felt restricted; until the events in Tahrir [Square]. When that happened I was given press releases from the Interior Ministry That was questionable to say the least. We were told to say it was the Muslim Brotherhood that had instigated this when actually it was activists. It was the young Internet users.
RFE/RL: Before this crisis had there been similar incidents when you felt questionable editorial decisions were made, or when the Interior Ministry interfered with your reporting?
Amin: When the church bombing happened in Alexandria [in December 2010] we had statements from the Interior Ministry pointing the finger at Jaysh Al-Islam, which they said was an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, because they said that threats from Iraq had come against churches in both Iraq and Egypt. And now there are reports in the media that it was the Interior Ministry that was behind this bombing.
RFE/RL: You have said that after January 25 and the beginning of the protests, Nile TV began to receive strict instructions. Explain please the mechanics of state media. How did the Interior Ministry begin to control Nile TV?
Amin: We had to follow the Arabic channel [of Nile TV]. They said we couldn't air anything that wasn't aired on Channel One [the Arabic channel of Nile TV], so we were closely monitoring what the Arabic news was reporting. And they kept sending press releases for us to read on air, and before talk shows, we would discuss what were the points that we were allowed to bring up. I was constantly being told that I had to say there were foreign elements fomenting the unrest and inciting. The [official] line of state media was that the people in Tahrir Square were either hired thugs or drug dealers.
RFE/RL: Who was the "they" you refer to? Was it your own colleague or state officials who were in charge of monitoring your work?
Amin: We had to work very closely with the head of the news sector, who was getting his directives from the Interior Ministry and the information minister. As we speak now [February 10th], there is a huge protest by employees of state television who are discontented with the coverage themselves. They have all chosen to voice their discontent in Tahrir Square.
RFE/RL: Your resignation on February 3 was covered on Al-Jazeera, BBC, and CNN to name just a few. Has state media changed since you resigned a week later?
Amin: There is a major shift in the way the story is being covered now. My colleagues were given camera crews and asked to go to the square to hear the demands of the antiregime protesters and to air everything without censorship at all. This hadn't happened before. We had been concentrating on the pro-Mubarak rallies and just the statements from the Interior Ministry. There is a major shift, but it's not because of my resignation. This is happening because of domestic pressures. Because the protests have stayed put; they have refused to leave the square; so every day there are new concessions.
RFE/RL: In addition to your career with Nile TV, you're a freelance contributor to CNN's "Inside Africa" and have covered sensitive topics like discrimination against Copts, Sudanese refugees in Egypt, and other topics for which you said you came under pressure. How did the Mubarak regime intimidate you after your controversial reporting?
Amin: I would get a call from State Security telling me they respect my professionalism but this shouldn't happen again because it was tarnishing the image of the country. ...At times they would reprimand me. Other times I would receive blatant threats that if this happened again I would be in hot water. ...But I refused to be intimidated and I felt with every story I was pushing the freedom boundary slightly higher.
RFE/RL: What happened the morning you left for work? What made you suddenly walk away from a job you had held for 22 years?
Amin: I was very unhappy the day before I had gone on air and read out the statements that I knew were misleading the public. I had been to Tahrir several times to see for myself without my camera because I wasn't allowed to cover the story. ...I didn't find any foreign agents there. I didn't see any Kentucky Fried Chicken meals and nobody had received euros or dollars and I saw this was an all-inclusive movement. Families with children, the Christians, the Muslims, the working class, and the middle-class -- everybody was there.
So it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I just parked my car. I heard the chants in Tahrir. Instead of heading, which is not far off, to the state TV building, I just took a right turn and I went right into Tahrir [Square]. I sent my boss a message: "Sorry, I will not becoming back to the building because I'm not on the regime's side. I'm with the people."