By Manu Abdo
Fixer and journalist – Cairo and Port Said, Egypt.
When the shooting started on the bridge, the two Swedish journalists I was working with instantly lay on the ground. But I didn’t. I’ve never had any combat training – so I turned and ran in a straight line away from where the bullets were coming.
Instinctively that seemed the right thing to do. However, within seconds it became clear that it wasn’t – a protester running next to me took a bullet in the neck. A big mob of people running in a straight line is an easy target, but the Swedish journalists were not.
Working in clashes is a big part of an Egyptian fixer’s work, and knowing how to react to gunfire is an essential life skill. But whereas western media outlets often give their crews proper training to deal with whatever situation they find themselves in, no one gives the same training to the local fixers who are theoretically responsible for the foreign crews’ safety. Too often, we are on our own.
A few months earlier, I was on another job with an Italian journalist. We were on our way back from the northern city of Port Said when our driver suddenly lost control of the car.
The car span around in a crazy circular dance. We hit a tree. I took a blow to my forehead, while the others were screaming from pain. I thought the car was going to explode so I jumped out and started pulling the others out with me.
Suddenly I realized that I couldn’t remember where we were, or what had just happened. I didn’t even recognise the people I was pulling from that wrecked car.
Suffering from amnesia, we all went to hospital for a brain scan. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for the treatment, but luckily the Italian journalist said he’d pay for mine. I was fortunate he was so generous. But what if he hadn’t been? There was no legal obligation for him to pay. I was just a fixer with no formal relationship to his company. As is often the case in the world of fixers, I was at the mercy of a visiting journalist’s generosity.
Two hours after the accident, shortly before my scheduled brain scan, I started to remember things again. The doctor felt I was therefore probably fine. So I didn’t have an examination in the end, and went home not knowing if that temporary amnesia would cause any complications in the future or not. Maybe I’ll be fine. But as a freelance fixer, I’ll have no-one to support me if I’m not.
Another month, a major magazine asked me to set up a series of interviews for a new series. It was a big project, and I put three weeks’ work into it. I even set up some preliminary online interviews with potential subjects, to help the journalists work out what the documentary could look like. Then one day I got an email from the company. They were very sorry – but they had a better deal with another fixer. And they wouldn’t pay a penny for the work I’d already done. Without any organisation to push for my rights, there was nothing I could do.
As a fixer, I’m often in that kind of legal no-man’s-land. For years, like most fixers, I’ve worked without accreditation – and that’s a huge risk if you get stopped by police while on the job. If the journalist you’re working with is registered with the government, that can help. But often they don’t have anything either.
The newspaper I’m now working for has finally helped me get accredited with the Egyptian government. But it hasn’t been that simple. Like every journalist in Cairo, I applied for a press card last December. Three months later, they said it was ready. But when I went to pick it up, all they gave me was a flimsy bit of card, rather than the shiny plastic thing most other applicants got. I asked where the real card was. The official said they ran out, and maybe next year I’d get a real one.
The card I have now is better than nothing, but why am I treated differently as a fixer?
What all these examples show is that there is a real need for an organisation to stand up for fixers’ rights. We are an important and unsung part of foreign journalism – and we need better representation. To work in safety, we need a legal status that would show the authorities – or even angry street mobs – that we have a right to work as we do. I need to feel like someone has my back – especially in places like Egypt, and in times like now, when an authoritarian dictatorship is trying to set down roots, and eliminate anyone (like journalists) who cause it problems. Journalists are a target of the authorities – and anyone who deals with foreign media could be easily identified as a traitor or a spy, according the regime’s political agenda.
Insurance for fixers would be a very good first step towards feeling safer in the job. Training for combat situations would also be very useful – and in tandem the two would hugely enhance our performance. We would know how to act in the field to avoid getting hurt – and in the event that something bad did happen, we’d know we wouldn’t find ourselves paying for our treatment from our own pocket.
Currently, most of our work is done without contracts and just by verbal agreement – and so it’s very possible that in the future I’ll again waste my time working for a company like that famous magazine, and end up not getting paid. But if a third party was there to safeguard the deal between us, I’d feel a lot safer.
And on the bridge on that day, if a fixers’ union had given me proper training, I would have been lying on the ground beside the Swedish journalists – waiting for the firing to stop and then continuing my way.