FREELANCE JOURNALIST AND FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT | CAIRO
You’re a freelance journalist based in Cairo. What does that entail?
Being a freelance journalist in Cairo means that you must always be alert and available: anything could happen at any time, in the most unpredictable moment and at the craziest hour of the day. This is true for all journalists but in particular for freelancers that work on their own and must be updated all the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Why be a freelance journalist rather than on staff? Would you like a staff position?
I became a freelancer by chance, and I must say that I enjoy the freedom and the flexibility that it entails. At the same time, there are some negative aspects of working on your own, without the infrastructure of a media organisation behind you and the support that colleagues can give you. I would like to enjoy some day the benefits of being on staff, but at the same time I'm afraid of giving up my freedom!
What is a 'typical day' like?
I've always tried to have a daily routine despite the fact that I don't have to go to an office or follow a given schedule. Of course, deadlines as well as the sequence of news and events set my timetable. In Egypt and in the Middle East in general, mornings are very quiet and things start to heat up in the afternoon. Big events happen many times late at night – this is often a problem because your deadline comes at the same time as the news, or news comes even later than the deadline!
Why did you decide to go to Cairo?
When I graduated from university, I was granted an internship at the Spanish News Agency EFE and I had the opportunity to go to the International Bureau for a one-year training programme. At that time, I was already very interested in Middle East affairs and I believed Cairo would be a good starting point to get to know the culture, the language and the politics of the region.
You studied journalism at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense. How do you use it in your daily work?
What I studied at university has little practical utility in my daily work but I do think that it is very important to have a good and solid theoretical basis in order to do my job on the ground better. Obviously, there are things that you can only learn by working, and by making mistakes, but ideas and concepts related to journalism– its formal and ethical dimensions – are essential as well.
With the beheadings of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the risks of journalism (and particularly freelance journalism) have been in the news lately. As you are personally affected by the situation, what is your take on it?
Being a journalist (especially a freelancer) in a conflict zone always implies some risks and I think all of us are very aware of them. Since the Arab Spring, we have seen so many freelancers going to war without any kind of experience or security and without any support from a media organisation – myself included! But you do it anyway and, of course, you would never imagine that the horrible things that happened to Foley and Sotloff could one day affect you...
Freelance journalism, particularly in the Middle East, seems to be male-dominated. What do you think would change if there were more women involved?
People would be surprised to know how many female journalists (foreigners) are working in the Middle East, despite the difficulties that being a woman implies in this region of the world. I believe women – in general and in this particular case– work harder to show that we can do it as well or even better than our male colleagues, and I can see that in all the female journalists I've met in Egypt, Libya, Syria... very brave and wonderful professionals. What would make the real difference is to have more female local journalists working on the ground in the Middle East, where reporting is still very much male-dominated.
Are there particular advantages and disadvantages to being a woman freelance journalist in Cairo?
The disadvantages are clearly related to the personal safety: sexual assaults and harassment have been very common and female journalists have been the main targets. Still I can see many advantages working as a foreign female journalist in the Arab world: you get well treated and respected in general and, sometimes, you are treated better than your male colleagues – for example, as a woman, it's less likely to get arrested, beaten, etc. by security forces.
Which story are you most proud to have covered?
Of course, the biggest and most exciting story I have covered was the Egyptian revolution in 2011. It was amazing from a personal and a professional point of view to have had the privilege to witness the revolt since its very beginning, on 25 January, and through the 18 days of protests in Tahrir Square, until the day Mubarak stepped down.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
The most rewarding aspect is indeed telling human stories and explaining the reality of the Middle East in order to make people understand and, perhaps, love it! The least rewarding is the 'material' aspect of freelance journalism: the lack of security and guarantees, especially economically speaking.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
I think the key skills are perseverance, patience and passion, and I developed them during my time in Egypt - which has made me even more passionate about what I do and even more determined.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
The toughest lesson that I have learnt, and that has been very hard to learn, is that my work will never be recognised as much as I would like to – but still it is worth it to do my best.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
I think the biggest challenge as a freelance journalist was covering the war in Libya, especially the first time I went there in February 2011: without any previous experience covering conflicts, without anyone helping me and without the basic tools I was supposed to have as a 'war correspondent' – a flak jacket, for example. But eventually I did deal with the 'logistical' circumstances and I managed to do my job in the best way I could, aware of my limitations.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I'm proud of having been able to stay and work in Egypt for many years, building my career on the knowledge and the experience I've acquired in the country, and not giving up in the most difficult times, before and after the 2011 revolution.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I don't have a role model, but I do really admire many of the colleagues based in Cairo, that work hard on the ground 365 days per year – not only when the big news breaks – and tell stories that many don't dare or cannot tell. And many of them are very young and freelancers!
Francesca Cicardi | Freelance journalist and foreign correspondent in Cairo
Seven years' experience
CV in brief
Studied Journalism at Universidad Complutense (Madrid)
Previously worked at EFE news agency
Find her online: @FraCicardi
Blog (in Spanish): Informacion, reflexiones y opinion desde El Cairo