As the Egyptian revolution unfolded in early 2011, foreign journalists flooded into Egypt. Their arrival prompted the need for fixers, i.e., locals who assist foreign journalists in everything related to reporting, starting with logistics, such as transportation and accommodation and all the way to accessing informants, translation of interviews and documents, and navigating the legal and governmental system. Through their role, Egyptian fixers expose themselves to risks, as they are easy prey for the state in its attack on free expression. Many of these fixers were activists and aspiring journalists themselves, for whom fixing was a way to contribute to the revolution. This article explores this “fixing for the revolution” through interviews with nine fixers and six foreign journalists. The role of fixers emerges as ambiguous but decisive. They shape reporting on Egypt, and in doing so they shape Egyptian politics itself. This significant influence has also made them vulnerable.
The Egyptian January 25 revolution introduced a short-lived era during which journalists, foreign and Egyptian, enjoyed an unprecedented level of freedom. However, as the political situation developed, during and after the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and now under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, journalists of all types of media, political affinities, and nationalities have been increasingly silenced and persecuted. The number of legal cases, ensuing arrests, and forced disappearances targeting journalists and activists in Egypt are ample proof. Consequently, the names of all fixers and journalists still residing in Cairo have been changed here, to ensure their safety.
English-language media (foreign and local) played a significant role in professionally presenting Egypt’s story to the world. Meanwhile, Arabic-language media remained under governmental censorship and aligned with popular opinions[i]. Local state media, particularly Al-Ahram Weekly, have been highly critical of foreign media’s attempt at covering the Egyptian situation. They have argued that foreign reporters are likely to be misleading due to potential political agendas, as well as the gap in their understanding of Egyptian society, culture, and protest dynamics[ii]. Meanwhile, opportunities created by Egyptian English-language portals such as Mada Masr (blocked in Egypt since May 2017) are consistently resisting political pressures and threats[iii].
Within these media circles in Egypt, fixers are locals who provide assistance to foreign journalists. They have existed for as long as foreign correspondents, as a response to claims made against foreign journalism. Originally an innovation of conflict zones, such as Palestine and Iraq[iv], the use of fixers in Egypt intensified during the 2011 protests, which marked the initial contact between them and foreign journalists. It intensified until shortly after the dispersal of the Rab‘aa Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in August 2013[v]. Most fixers were activists and had journalistic potential: their work at the time mainly depended on their journalist partners; it has dwindled since. The story of fixing in Egypt was a barometer of the state of journalism and expression, with a lot of freedom at the beginning, followed by a slow painful death. Today, field reporting is increasingly dangerous for Egyptians, and inaccessible for most foreigners. For instance, Nina Hubinet, one of the participants of this research, was denied entry to Cairo last May, while many others have been feeling unsafe in the country. Meanwhile, fixers who participated in the project have quit fixing and found other professions, and/or left the country altogether. This article sheds a little light on this short life, what it looked like, and what it can teach us about how reporting is created, who the main players are, and who bears the highest price.
Qualifications and Job Description of Fixers
Different types of foreign journalists were present in Cairo during the revolution–foreign-based correspondents, parachute journalists, who arrive to cover a specific story and spend a short time in the country, and freelancers. For international and Western-based news organizations, the cost of fielding correspondents abroad was too high, especially given the limited attention of audiences to world news. Thus, they often opted to send so-called parachute journalists and commission freelancers. The challenge here is that more often than not, parachute journalists–who are only in the field for a short time–are ill-equipped and do not have sufficient understanding of, or context for, the situations into which they are thrown, nor sufficient time to analyze them[vi]. Moreover, while the main supporting argument for parachute journalists is their regional expertise, fast pace, and flexibility, this applies only to those who had previously been foreign-based correspondents[vii].
Types and requirements of fixers also varied. In the case of parachute journalists, who spend brief amounts of time in different places, objectives are communicated even before they arrive, usually around a month earlier. After a discussion on objectives and expectations, fixers arrange the work plan and locate informants. Their job is usually finished once all sources are interviewed. Ashraf, a fixer for French-speaking journalists, believes that it is also within the fixer’s role to make sure journalists have the proper permits and that the relevant work is conducted legally. In the case of foreign-based journalists, more is expected. The context is explained more thoroughly, more options are presented, and fixers are expected to follow news and provide briefs. Not only do they translate interviews, but also legal documents, and research material not available in English.
In order for a fixer to do his/her job, certain skills have to be available. Clarissa Ward, a CBS News reporter at the time who has done a lot of work in the region, believes that fixers should have a proper understanding not only of the political and cultural situation but also of geographical and security conditions. “You do not have time to sit and audition fixers, so you are stuck with good fixers or bad ones,” she says, meaning that previous experience is always helpful. In her opinion, it is important that fixers are active, curious, critical, and even witty, as their work and perspectives influence how stories are shaped. Since their role is integral to the entire newsgathering process, it is also imperative that they are unbiased, self-reflexive, and able to remain uninvolved.
Conditions of Fixing in Cairo
Despite the changing dynamics of journalism, there are common practices in regard to accessing and dealing with fixers. Parachute journalists, for instance, more than any other type of foreign journalists, are believed to be able to quickly form support systems everywhere they go: fixers are an integral part of these systems[viii]. In Cairo, initial encounters between fixers and journalists were mostly coincidental. Four of the fixers who took part in this research entered the field after meeting journalists in Tahrir Square during the 2011 protests. A couple of them were presented with the opportunity through friends. The revolution, and the different relationships, connections, incidents, and interests developing through it, created fertile ground for fixing to thrive in Cairo and pull people in; so much so that during the early years of the revolution, fixers were able to fully support themselves financially, and most of them quit their pre-existing jobs.
Later on, fixers were recruited through the network of foreign journalists in Egypt. It was revealed during interviews that there are Facebook pages and emails connecting all journalists working in Egypt or passing through, and where information about fixers is shared and fact-checks happen. These checks can be interviews revealing potential biases, or guaranteeing language abilities, access to relevant networks and whatever special skills a given reporting job requires. Furthermore, some journalists connected their fixers with their organizations or agencies for future cooperation.
Mahmoud had quit his job when a friend told him about a journalist who needed a fixer. He contacted her and, after a short interview, started working with her. She then recommended him to someone else, who was pleased with his performance and placed him on journalists’ “directories” as a form of recognition. Having had that initial vote of confidence, Mahmoud was able to sustain himself for quite a while, solely doing fixing work.
During selection, it is important that foreign journalists develop confidence in fixers’ abilities and skills as they often find themselves in challenging situations, facing threats and even danger. These instances are the prime reason why the work fixers do is of vital importance, indispensable even. Fixers find themselves relaying between journalists and the events they are reporting[ix] and consequently going beyond their role as interpreters, becoming intertwined with the process of reporting and intervening in its presentation. It has become vital for journalists and fixers alike to be aware and critical of the way this particular role impacts newsgathering, particularly in situations where security risks challenge the adequacy of media coverage.
Nationalism and conspiracy theories, constantly propagated by Egyptian state media, have not helped journalists and fixers get their jobs done smoothly. This was an early sign of the strong crackdown on independent media that began in the second half of 2013. According to the fixers interviewed, during the early days in the revolution “everyone wanted to talk to foreigners”–government officials, business figures, and ordinary citizens. However, with the sociopolitical developments and media increasingly following the discourse of foreign intervention, it was only government officials who remained mostly receptive to foreign names and foreign media. The mention of a foreign newspaper when asking government officials for a meeting was a guaranteed way in, according to fixers. Mahmoud has never been turned down when calling and saying he was from the Daily Telegraph or New York Times. Meanwhile, his colleagues who work with al-Masry al-Youm or any other local organization struggle, unless they know someone with authority and can contact them directly.
On the other hand, citizens, encouraged by the media, were growing suspicious of foreigners, and some days were especially hard and more dangerous than others for journalists taking their work to the streets. Beatrice, an Australian freelance journalist based in Cairo, confirmed these challenges and shared stories of journalists and their fixers being attacked while filming on the streets; some were even robbed and had their cameras smashed. This drove many journalists away, affecting fixers’ livelihood and ways of reporting on the Egyptian situation.
Individuals with social or political standing set a different kind of challenge. A simple example is that when a renowned media figure was interviewed and did not appreciate the way the final article portrayed him/her, s/he refused to do any other interviews with the fixer who had originally contacted him/her. These kinds of incidents strongly affected a fixer’s reputation, and hence his/her work opportunities.
There are fixers with fields of specialization, for example, Khaled, an expert on Sinai who was contacted often when something in the area was required. He had been working consistently with agencies after undertaking a citizen journalism course. Eventually, he met journalists who worked with him and recommended him to others. Since Sinai is a high-risk zone with increasing levels of violence, Khaled’s journalistic endeavors led him to near arrest multiple times, and to one actual arrest with a six-month sentence of suspension from work and travel. Recently, after an exceptionally dangerous encounter with the police and a period of temporary confinement, Khaled has relocated to Cairo and is no longer a fixer. Another fixer has been granted asylum in Germany and most others are working on finding ways out of the country.
It is important to note female roles in fixing. Mai and Heba were able to work on all types of stories, but their edge was sexual harassment and stories on similarly sensitive topics. Women were more likely to share their stories with other women and families in distress were more welcoming to, and less threatened by, females. Moreover, according to Mai, sometimes journalists going to potentially tense meetings preferred to take female fixers along, as the presence of a woman was culturally expected to enforce manners to some extent.
Training, Development, and Trust
Fixers are aware of their edge over foreign journalists, which has mixed consequences. Even if a journalist speaks the language, interactions can still remain a challenge due to cultural differences. This has made many fixers aware of the weight of their responsibility and adds to their dedication and precaution. Contrastingly, it has encouraged some fixers to harbor their own agendas, relying on the ignorance or intellectual vulnerability of journalists. A concern for locally based correspondents, in particular, is therefore that working consistently with a single fixer might run the risk of the fixer monopolizing the journalist’s perception of the situation and hence their reporting on it.
Furthermore, foreign correspondents of all types are a tightly knit community, a consequence of the nature of their work and the constant need for support. Fixers in Egypt are fairly integrated into this community, but nevertheless, fixers and foreign correspondents have different expectations of working together, especially in the early stages of the job. Culturally and professionally speaking, European/American practices can differ from local Egyptian ones, including those pertaining to newsgathering. Some testimonies reflected challenging situations where fixers thought journalists were too uptight and even rude, while journalists complained that some fixers were unprofessional and required training prior to setting out to work, which was a waste of their time. Mai, for instance, struggled with her lack of experience in the beginning. She could not hold her political opinions aside and often debated with sources, until with time she learned to hold back.
Trust was also a serious issue. While journalists and critics of fixers would be quick to accuse fixers of bias and lack of professionalism, one fixer remembered his first fixing job with a Hungarian journalist who he recalls spent his eight months in Egypt sleeping and drinking while the fixer did all the work. The fixer was grateful for the learning experience, but the journalist then left without paying him. This was not a single, or even a rare, occurrence.
As a result of these gaps in journalists’ and fixers’ levels of experiences and expectations, and due to the huge role fixers play and the increasing dependency on them, training has become part of the journalist-fixer exchange. This is in order for them to develop expertise to function as reporters on the journalists’ behalf in case needed[x]. This particular step, not exclusive to a particular type of foreign journalist (correspondent, parachute, or freelancer), has led to fixers becoming effective journalists, doing interviews on their own, and reporting on behalf of journalists who have left the country or do not feel safe enough on the streets. Yet while fixers developed on the job, their pay and rights were not always guaranteed. However, this lack of guarantee is more than a question of simple power dynamics and the access and mobility that journalists have compared to fixers. It is further complicated by the economic challenges that journalists are facing globally, where–in the case of freelancers–journalists are not always able to successfully pitch their work and are often underpaid.
Recognition and Power Dynamics
Recognition of fixers usually comes in the form of generous payment, occasional editorial space, and recommendations for more work. However, the differences between the kinds of journalists–and their ethical standards in regard to their budgets–are important to consider. There are multiple issues to consider when discussing the budgets of both journalists and fixers. In Egypt, it was possible for fixers to fully depend on this work for a number of years after 2011. This is attributable to the huge amount of reporting that was done during that time, the growing interest in the region, and the high budgets assigned mostly to the parachute journalists of major media organizations. The relatively low value of the Egyptian pound relative to the dollar at the time also made quite a difference. The rates of fixers reached two hundred dollars per day at certain points in time and did not often go below one hundred dollars–which amounted to an average monthly salary in Cairo during that time period.
Fixers, however, are often not included in the pay rates of freelance journalists. Beatrice and most freelancers would rather depend on friends and favors to get as much of their fixing work done as possible. Some of the fixers interviewed, at least in the beginning of their work, did not have high financial expectations and were easily accessible to freelance journalists. They did not mind working for free, especially when realizing that they were often paid out of the journalists’ personal pockets.
Security is a major consideration when considering recognition in the fixer-journalist engagement. In regard to journalists’ relationships with fixers, name credit remains a function of the security situation–for the protection of the fixer, mainly–and news organizational policy, among other things. Due to the political conditions in Egypt, and especially those pertaining to journalism and freedom of speech, in most cases fixers were the ones deciding on the form of recognition they preferred. The most common form of recognition that a fixer requested–other than money–was recommendations and referral to other journalists, in order to sustain an income.
Most fixers and journalists confirmed that byline recognition was not a priority. Some had worked on fifty or sixty pieces and were credited fewer than ten times. Not all fixers had journalistic ambitions and were working either for financial or political reasons. In these cases, they were not concerned about bylines. Most of the time it was a security concern, not just for the fixers but also for their sources and people interviewed. Khaled is a case in point. Nevertheless, he was deceived by a journalist who took material from him and published it as his own. Trust rarely ceased to be an issue. Unfortunately, other fixers also reported having gone through similar experiences, where even when they directly asked for credit, they were denied it on account of–often false–organization policy.
Just as journalists are concerned about fixers’ level of honesty, fixers are often concerned about how a given journalist will portray the critical political situation in Egypt. Consequently, interviewees brought up the question of the value of a foreign journalist’s presence, especially with the decline of outgoing news about Egypt. Fixers argued that the ongoing state-led crackdown on freedom of political expression was strongly inhibiting. Meanwhile, journalists defended the necessity of addressing their own communities, by representing Egypt and its people with nuance and honesty.
The debate on foreign journalists, their strengths and shortcomings, is one that will continue, but their practice will always be challenged by the constraints applied by the countries they report on, and not only by the orientalist discourses that continue within international media. This leaves the question of the fixer’s agency hanging. How much agency do they have, and how much of their perspective actually makes it to the reports we see and hear? Despite the power imbalances that can exist between journalist and fixer, the interviews here underline that the fixers’ contribution to the process–their access to informants, their choice of sources, and their opinions expressed, intentionally or not–means that there is no way of bypassing their voice. Their name on the byline is only a technicality: their voice in the written words, however, is too entangled with the journalist’s voice to be denied or dismissed.
[ii] K. Diab, “Egypt's heavily censored media continues to take on the regime,” The Guardian, 6 February 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/feb/09/arabic-press-freedom-censorship; Hussein D. K. Mansour , and D. Rabie, “More than a language -- politics of local English media” Yemen Times, 2 May 2013, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1348165925?accountid=12725.
[iii] L. T. Chang, "The News Website That’s Keeping Press Freedom Alive in Egypt," The Guardian, 27 January 2015.
[iv] A. Bishara, "Local Hands, International News: Palestinian Journalists and the International Media." Ethnography 7, no. 1, 2006, pp. 19-46.
[v] L. Loveluck, "What Really Happened on the Day More than 900 People Died in Egypt," GlobalPost, 21 February 2014.
[vi] E. Erickson and J. M. Hamilton, “Foreign Reporting Enhanced by Parachute Journalism,” Newspaper Research Journal, 27 no. 1 (2006): 33-47.
[vii] J. Palmer and V. Fontan, “‘Our ears and our eyes’: Journalists and fixers in Iraq,” Journalism 8 no. 1 (2007): 5-24.
[viii] Ulf Hannerz, "Among the Foreign Correspondents: Reflections on Anthropological Styles and Audiences," Ethnos 67, no. 1 (2002): 57-74.
[ix] Palmer and Fontan, “Our ears and our eyes,” 5-24.