Military press releases have become the main source of news in North Sinai, but now locals are publishing their own stories.
"We are not journalists but our reality has forced us to report the suffering of our people,” says a contributor to Sinai News 24, an amateur news site run on Facebook.
For a strategic border region in its third year of a brutal war between armed militants and national security forces, North Sinai receives remarkably little coverage in Egypt’s mainstream media, with foreign journalists fearing attacks and local reporters forced to contend with a tightening security crackdown.
Brief updates from the official military spokesman have become the main channel of information to the outside world, but as tensions escalate, residents have become increasingly unhappy with these impersonal and one-sided reports of a war that has overturned their lives since 2013.
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To fill the information vacuum, many have taken to social media to create a network of citizen reporters in Sinai’s main cities. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, the contributor said he and others started posting updates in 2013 when the Egyptian army stepped up its military operation to eradicate Islamist groups in the region.
It was soon after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government, he says, and the already turbulent peninsula was experiencing a wave of terror attacks as a group formerly known as Ansar Bait-Al Maqdis, now known as Sinai Province, pledged to avenge “security forces violations against Muslims”.
The group has since claimed a series of high-profile terror attacks, including a string of explosions in Cairo in 2014, and the shooting down of a Russian place in 2015, killing all 224 passengers in board.
The group decided to publish short posts on the ongoing clashes and deaths, adding detail and description to the often dry statements being circulated by the armed forces.
Their first major hit was a graphic video allegedly showing two young men being tortured to death by the military, which was picked up by international news outlets. The army had reported that the men were killed in an armed confrontation.
“We felt the importance of our role when we made people, young and old, speak up about what they face, and this first video that we published broke the fear barrier,” the contributor says.
The growth of Sinai News 24 and a handful of similar outlets has encouraged local residents to speak out about the abuses they experience at the hands of the military and insurgent groups, but doing so comes at a risk.
The security forces prohibit the use of cameras in Sinai, especially around military installations, and being caught with footage can lead to detention, or worse. Human Rights Watch has reported that thousands of civilians have been tried in military courts in the last 18 months.
To avoid harassment and intimidation, Sinai News 24 depends on a network of volunteer reporters, each gathering news from a designated area so as not to attract attention.
Facebook commenters also play an important role in this crowdsourced form of reporting. Almost all posts, whether about electricity outages or bomb attacks, are followed by elaborations, confirmations, denials or corrections posted below the line by people from the affected areas.
A 33-year-old resident in Arish, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said residents have come to consider local citizen journalists as their main source of information, even if some sites are thought to have links to militant or opposition groups.
“They are the only option we have to find out about what we don’t see with our own eyes, and if they write wrong information, there are so many people to go in and correct them,” he says.
Khawater Sinawy (Thoughts of a Sinai Resident) is also popular in the region. Known as an opposition page, the reader says he trusts this content in particular because it goes beyond the current crisis and “reminds people of the forgotten aspects of Sinai.”
In addition to news reporting, Khawater Sinawy posts news of charities in need of support, announces deaths and funeral dates and engages its audience with fun community-building games.
Mostafa Singer, a Sinai-based journalist working at the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, says these sites have become vital in the region, but disputes their legitimacy as news outlets. “Reaching the location of events in Sinai has become almost impossible. Official sources don’t give any real information, and the [mainstream media] all operate under serious constraints, not to mention the threat of prosecution.
“[However], the pages are run on political inclinations and don’t provide complete and objective information,” he says.
In an attempt to fill the gap of professional journalism, Singer launched the only licensed media website in Sinai, Sinai Now TV, which aimed to go beyond the news and produce weekly shows discussing Sinai affairs. However, due to difficulties in finding staff and the deteriorating security situation, the project was abadoned in 2013, leaving behind only a Facebook page that has accumulated around 135,000 followers.
“The state of media in Sinai is the same as all of Egypt,” Singer contends. “There is no professionalism, and you always get only part of the picture.”
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