Egyptian opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi speaks to journalists in Cairo on March 27. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Columnist

What do you say to a class of Egyptian journalism students who know that the price of speaking too freely — telling truths that the government doesn’t like — could be imprisonment and worse?

“Be careful” was my first admonition to the aspiring journalists gathered this past weekend at the American University in Cairo. But I told them that even though they face limits, they remain part of a global network of reporters who struggle to do their jobs, as best they can, in places where truth-telling can sometimes be a death sentence.

I think about the passion and intensity on the faces of those young men and women this week, as we at The Post commemorate the six-month anniversary of the death of our Saudi colleague Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered because of his fearless commentary about Saudi Arabia.

Journalism doesn’t need any more martyrs — in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the United States. But looking at those students, I was reminded that censorship is a losing game in the long run. There are just too many bright young minds around the world who can see reality for themselves on the Internet, decide what’s true and what isn’t — and keep looking for ways to live an honest, open life.

People sadly may not always be able to write or speak the truth in public, but they know what it is. They can be free in their own minds, even in unfree places. It may be too risky to publish anti-government exposés, but that doesn’t mean people believe pro-government lies. They keep the truth alive in the one place that the censors can’t reach, which is inside their heads.

I had traveled to Cairo to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of AUC’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and the 100th anniversary overall of AUC. These two institutions remind me of the United States’ enduring gifts to the world, for all our mistakes. We helped spread the idea of freedom of thought.

Nearly every country in the Middle East has an “American” university. Often, they were founded by Protestant missionaries who wanted to share the tools of enlightenment, in the expectation that people would find their way to prosperity, freedom and perhaps Christian faith. The missionaries’ hope, expressed in a carving over the gate at the American University of Beirut, was the biblical injunction: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.”

I have been visiting AUC and schools like it for nearly 40 years. Partly, it’s a recognition of my own roots. My grandfather and great-grandfather were educated at a Protestant missionary school called Euphrates College, in what was then the Ottoman Empire. Family lore has it that my great-grandfather translated Milton’s “Paradise Lost” into Armenian. He wrote poems about freedom and was imprisoned, before escaping to England and eventually settling in the United States.

Being free in unfree places involves little things. It’s too dangerous for Egyptian students here to investigate political controversies. (Even the word “investigate” sounds dangerous to some administrators.) But a few Egyptian ministries encourage journalism students to come examine their performance and see how it can be improved.

The AUC student newspaper, the Caravan, understands the limits. The lead headline in the most recent issue was “Candidates Play It Safe in [Student Union] Debate.” Students here talk politics only in dense code. But they try to push the envelope where they can. Even a small journalism probe — looking at food service in the cafeteria, say — risks offending some people. Student reporters learn to gather the facts, organize them clearly and hold people accountable.

Egypt is a country where reporters need an official press card, in effect a government license, before they can cover most public events. The official journalists’ “syndicate” helps maintain uniformity. Young people censor themselves on social media, too, because they know the government is watching.

“We want our student journalists to be free, but we don’t want them to go to jail,” says a senior AUC faculty member. “They know they have the noose around their necks,” says another teacher. The school wants its students to learn good journalism, but it rightly also wants them to stay safe.

A visit here reminded me that people everywhere are the same when it comes to information. They want openness and truth, but they know this can be dangerous. Sometimes they can’t speak the facts out loud, but they still hunger for them.

That’s why I cringe whenever I hear President Trump speak of journalists as the “enemy of the people.” Every day, in unfree societies, repressive rulers who agree with Trump put brave journalists in prison for doing their jobs.

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