In Egypt, Post journalists' courage in covering a revolution

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By Patrick B. Pexton
Ombudsman
Friday, March 4, 2011; 8:13 PM

The Egyptian who interrogated Post photographer Linda Davidson when she was detained during the Tahrir Square revolution was polite; he later friended her on Facebook. At the time, though, her situation was scary enough. She was in the middle of what turned out to be a 10-hour detention, her second since she had arrived in Cairo.

Davidson, a soft-spoken, almost serene, veteran photographer, is one of a dozen or so Post journalists on temporary assignments, traveling in and out of countries in the Middle East whose governments are collapsing.

Taking one of the last flights into the country before Cairo came to a stop, Davidson hitched a ride from the airport with ABC's Christiane Amanpour. It was night; there was no traffic and no pedestrians on the streets. "Egyptians were afraid to go out," Davidson said.

But every half mile or so during the six-mile ride to their hotel, they encountered impromptu checkpoints set up by men wielding sticks, bats, and the occasional machete and gun. The journalists and their translators had to talk their way through each of them.

In the ensuing days before President Hosni Mubarak fell from power, Davidson was not only arrested twice but also suffered a bloody gash to her head from a flying rock while photographing the violence in Tahrir Square. That was the day that Mubarak used loyalists riding camels and horses to attack the democracy demonstrators.

After applying a few bandages, she kept working and didn't change out of her bloody clothes for three days. Indeed she used her injury as leverage to get inside hospitals to report on and photograph Egyptians hurt in the violence.

During the rock-throwing battle, the Arab men who weren't groping her or stealing her iPhone were urging her to get out of the line of fire, but Davidson told them no, "This is when I come out, this is when I do my job." It's important, she said, because "once a photo is published, that's evidence."

Her first detention came while she was trying to photograph a bread line. But Egyptians were ashamed and did not want her to photograph it. From a nearby overpass, she shot a few frames of the bread line before a soldier confronted her and demanded that she give up her camera's memory card full of photographs. She said no. There ensued a two-hour negotiation between the soldiers and Davidson's translator assistant.

Davidson, meanwhile, was periodically taking drinks from the water bottle in her camera bag. In truth, each time she reached for the water she performed one quick step in a painstaking process of replacing the full memory card with a blank one. When she finally accomplished the task, she surrendered the memory card. The soldier walked away happy, not knowing he had the blank one. "I drank a lot of water in those two hours," Davidson said.

The second detention was more serious. She and Post reporter Leila Fadel had gone to the Cairo morgue to count bodies from the violence in the square. They were turned away by authorities who said, "There are no bodies here." Minutes later, the pair was arrested by the Egyptian military.

They were "very, very thoroughly searched" in public by a female bystander ordered to do so by the soldiers. After being held in temporary locations and driven around in vans, they were blindfolded, handcuffed, taken to a military intelligence unit and separated from each other and their translators. While detainees were entering the interrogation center single-file, one of the soldiers told Fadel that if she didn't keep her eyes focused on the floor as ordered, he would shoot her.

The two women were interrogated separately - Davidson's interrogator had spent time in Philadelphia and was courteous; he was Mr. Facebook. Davidson was forced to sign a statement in Arabic, which she couldn't read, and she, Fadel and other detainees were finally released, taken by van to an unfamiliar part of the city and dumped unceremoniously near a hotel at 10 p.m. The hotel wouldn't give them rooms because they now had an arrest record. Davidson and Fadel made their way across the city to Fadel's apartment. Their translators were held overnight, beaten and released the next day.

"Foreign correspondents go through a lot and you never hear about it," Davidson said with characteristic understatement. Still, she would return if asked. "This is my first revolution and hopefully not my last."

The Post's coverage of the turmoil in the Middle East has been exemplary because people like Davidson are risking their lives to bring readers the images and words of revolution.

I'm sure some readers will worry that my first column as the Post's ombudsman is positive. But I think good work should be praised. Emulation of the good improves a publication as much as avoidance of the bad, about which I'll have plenty of occasion to write.

A publication that aspires to greatness must have courage, the constant courage to take on the powerful, to unearth unpleasant truths, to take risks. If the Post's leadership emulates the bravery and resourcefulness of its own Linda Davidsons, its future will be secure.

The Post's ombudsman can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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