James Buck is famous on Twitter. The photojournalist and UC Berkeley graduate student used the messaging service to text “Arrested” as Egyptian police took him into caustody on April 10, and after a flood of media coverage, he was released the next day. But Buck would like a different name remembered: Mohammed Salah Ahmed Maree, his 23-year-old interpreter, who was taken at the same time.
Maree may still be in prison. The veterinary student has been held in a high-security facility called Borg al Arab outside Alexandria since his arrest two months ago, and while local news reports say he may be freed soon, neither Buck nor aid workers in his case could be certain. Maree has been tortured, Buck and others allege. According to his family and Human Rights Watch, he has gone on a hunger strike and been put in solitary confinement. Agents of the interior ministry have allegedly threatened the family, saying that Maree will never be released, even though no charges have officially been filed. Other organizers of the April protests have gotten out, but Maree, for a time, was simply lost in the system.
In the two months since his arrest, Buck has bent his journalistic efforts toward freeing Maree. His personal web site tracks the campaign’s progress and lists ways to help. Buck is now trying to build a global alert system using Twitter to quickly spread the word when others are taken.
Buck went to Egypt to finish a master’s thesis in journalism. He extended his stay into April to cover a labor strike in Mahalla, where textile workers were demanding higher wages and protesting rising inflation. Security forces infiltrated the crowd. When protesters pushed him and Maree into a cab to flee, police stopped the car, telling the driver Buck was CIA.
“It was kidnapping, basically,” he said of his arrest. “It’s a tool of any dictatorship. In order to stay in power when nobody’s elected you and nobody likes you, that’s what you have to do.” And this is where Buck stops being polite and starts sounding like an activist, even though everything he says about Egypt, America, and the complicated relationship between them is true. “We give them millions of dollars a year to fund their military dictatorship government so they can arrest and abuse and rape their people,” he said. “It’s farcical to pretend we’re promoting democracy in the Middle East and pay Mubarak’s government to do what they do.”
Indeed, Mubarak’s regime has a well-documented history of abusing Egypt’s people and its press. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom group, ranks the country 146th in terms of press freedom. The US gives about $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, and the US Agency for International Development gave the country $25 billion between 1975 and 2002, according to the state department.
“People have accused me of not being objective and of being an activist because I’m willing to say these things,” Buck said in a phone interview. “I don’t think that’s bad journalism. I hope that’s good journalism.”
Buck knew Egypt’s human rights record going in. He had spent two years studying the country’s media and had previously made several trips to the Middle East.
“I’d interviewed people who’d told me about being arrested, being tortured in prison, being raped in prison,” he said. “I knew that there were cell phone videos circulated of police raping people in prison.” Still, his attitude before April 10 was essentially, “Bring it on.”
“I knew these things happened, but it was obviously very different when it happened to me. And I certainly didn’t get the worst of it. My treatment was pretty good comparatively.”
Buck’s misadventure in Mahalla was widely reported. Upon being taken into custody, he twittered “Arrested” from his cell phone, which caught the attention of media, diplomats, and activists in the region. He was released shortly thereafter.
“James did everything right pretty much,” said Bill van Esveld, a fellow with Human Rights Watch based in Jerusalem. “He was plugged in. He had a network to fall back on.”
What Buck would like to do is formalize that process, build a network of emergency numbers and listening posts, so when the next journalist, blogger, or activist disappears, the same response will follow.
Right now, van Esveld says, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs rely on frequent phone check-ins when their people are in hot zones. If someone stops calling, it’s time to worry. If that person can shoot off a text message, relayed around the world, van Esveld believes he could get them to safety faster. “It’s good for us. It’s like more rapid-fire, and we can put the pressure on more quickly.”
Egypt is a test case for the idea, van Esveld added.
“Egypt is a really interesting phenomenon. People are getting more and more tech-savvy and government hasn’t figured out what to do about it yet,” he said. The country has a hyperactive blogosphere, and so far, there isn’t the widespread blocking of sites seen in China or Iran.
“It’s giving people a freedom of expression that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” van Esveld said.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone confirmed in an e-mail that he had lunch with Buck a few weeks ago and discussed the idea, although the San Francisco-based start-up isn’t actively building anything for Buck.
“Folks in Egypt and other places are already using Twitter as global alert system — a kind of newswire,” he wrote. “We see Twitter as a global communication utility supporting many different uses.”
Egypt is one of Twitter’s hot spots. The country ranks twelth internationally in SMS traffic, Stone said. Web traffic is far lower, though, a tribute to the proliferation of cell phones and the slow penetration of Internet access.
Similar networks exist using different technology. The American Red Cross maintains a “Safe and Secure” site where disaster victims can post messages letting family and friends know they’re alright.
UPDATE, July 8: Buck sends word that Maree was freed from prison on Sunday. The Committee to Protect Journalists also confirmed the veterinary student’s release. Buck wrote on his blog: “I spoke to him 8 July 2008 11:10 am PST. He is at home and says he is ‘fine.'” The photojournalist promised to post a statement from Maree as soon as possible.
Click here to view a multimedia slide show of photographs narrated by James Buck.