Student Journalist Twitters Himself Out of the Pen

When UC Berkeley journalism graduate student James Karl Buck was grabbed by police in the Egyptian industrial city of Mahalla El-Kobra while photographing a noisy demonstration, he sent a one-word text message to Twitter: “Arrested.”

That eventually got him out of jail.

His Twitter followers — friends who receive a Twitter user’s messages are known as “followers” — promptly called UC Berkeley, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and the media.

The university then swung into action and got him out.

An Innocent Abroad

Buck had gone to Egypt as part of his master’s degree project. His self-assigned mission: To see how bloggers serve as information sources in a restrictive society. “To my understanding, the topic of the project was the role of bloggers in Egyptian society — in a country that doesn’t have a free press, how do bloggers act as a free press,” Rob Gunnison, director of school affairs at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, told TechNewsWorld.

“I am a student journalist, studying at University of California, Berkeley,” Buck said on his Web site. “I came to Egypt 24 March 2008 to do some reporting for a student project. On 6 April, I traveled to Mahalla having heard of the strike planned. On 7 April, I returned and covered the ensuing riots.

“I am not a member of any political group in or affiliated with Egypt or any Egyptian or other movement. I am a journalist.”

What Happened

According to Buck’s account on his Web site, he was taking photographs on April 10 of a protest around the Mahalla Police 1st Station by families of people who had been detained without record or had gone missing, when he was arrested together with a friend and interpreter, Egyptian veterinary student Mohammed Salah Ahmed Maree.

The two men were taken into the police station, interrogated, “accused, threatened and intimidated” but not harmed physically.

At around midnight, they were taken to the prosecutor’s office and made statements recorded in Arabic and forced to sign these.

The police returned Buck’s camera but retained his memory card, and released both men unconditionally.

Outside the police station, they were detained again by the same officer who had arrested them initially, and detained without being allowed to get their release papers from the prosecutor’s office.

The police offered to free Buck but detained Mohammed, so Buck refused to go and threatened a hunger strike. In the morning, a lawyer hired by UC Berkeley offered to get Buck freed but he insisted on staying as long as Mohammed was detained.

Finally, the police took Mohammed to another holding cell and threw Buck out. “Throughout the time we were together, (Mohammed) was steadfast, compassionate and committed to helping me and helping journalism and the truth,” Buck said, adding that “Mohammed tried to get food and medicine to the prisoners as the last act I saw him do.”

How Buck Was Freed

It was signing up for extra travel insurance UC Berkeley offers for students traveling overseas that helped Buck get out so quickly. On getting an e-mail about Buck’s plight, Gunnison “notified Andy Goldblatt of the university’s risk management office, he contacted the office of the university president in Oakland and the university then contacted the insurance carrier.”

The insurance carrier, which “has relationships with attorneys around the world,” contacted a lawyer and an interpreter in Egypt and sent them off to get Buck, Gunnison added. The next day, a security company escorted Buck to the airport and onto the plane “so that he could get off safely,” he said.

“Safe with burly escort. Preparing to head west,” Buck Twittered on April 12 at 11:46 a.m. “Being evacuated by the army of University of California.”

As he was getting on the plane, his thoughts were still with his friend. “Boarding plane. Mohammed still whereabouts unknown, presume in custody,” he sent.

The Aftermath

He returned to his home in Oakland on April 14, and set up a petition to free Mohammed on the Web. Following that, he writes on his Web site that “the press secretary at the Egypt consulate in SF (San Francisco) wants to talk to me.”

Then, on Wednesday, he had good news: “Egyptian consul SF press sec.: Mohammed was set free Monday, there IS free press in Egypt,” he writes. Or was he wrong? The petition he set up to free Mohammed Maree is still up and he is urging readers to sign it.

“Egypt needs the support of the international community at this time to treat its prisoners humanely, promote democracy, get medical care to the wounded and free political prisoners and those arrested off the street and held without charge simply to intimidate the populous and prevent striking,” Buck writes. “Free and independent journalism without unlawful detention and harassment is a basic guardian of human rights that is being blinded in Egypt at the moment, much to the harm of the people.”

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