Meet the Press: Al Jazeera's Abdullah Elshamy

In our ongoing series, The Parliament endeavours to meet every foreign correspondent in town. This month, we speak to Al Jazeera Arabic’s Abdullah Elshamy
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

By Sarah Murphy Madia

Sarah Murphy Madia is editor of The Parliament

17 Apr 2023

When Abdullah Elshamy was released from a Cairo prison in 2014, video of the Al Jazeera journalist being hoisted upon the shoulders of supporters circulated around the world. Just 25 years old at the time, Elshamy had been detained without charge for 10 months following his coverage of the post-Arab Spring political turmoil in Egypt. Nearly a decade later, Elshamy leads a quieter life here in Brussels, where he’s been Al Jazeera Arabic’s EU correspondent for the past three years. We caught up with him at a cosy spot near Schuman roundabout. 

Our conversation took place in March, but Elshamy followed up in April to add a few words in reaction to news of the detention of Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich in Russia.

Your parents are Egyptian but you grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. How did you get into journalism? 

I was always into storytelling, although that sounds a bit cliché. During school, we used to have the daily assembly where you read the news and bits. That’s where it started. I was the one presenting the people who read the news. I would give the intro of the day, and then I would say, “So, X person is going to read the sport news.” Eventually, I came to realise that there is something called journalism. 

I was also lucky that one of my uncles was a journalist, but he was more into magazines, so it wasn’t like a daily news thing. When we lived in Nigeria, he used to send us copies of the magazines. It was like a connection to Egypt. I would read it and, you know, the idea of having your name on an article was fascinating for someone my age. I always thought I would end up in newspapers rather than TV, to be honest. 

You became a famous face for media freedom when you were imprisoned in Egypt for your work as a journalist. Does that experience continue to shape your approach to journalism? 

The day I was caught, as the army was moving in, what I really cared about at the time was the footage that we had. You know, is it safe? So I said to [my team of freelance camera people and producers], “Everyone goes alone, I’m going to go on my own”. And then I gave the cameraman and everyone contacts with [people at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in] Doha. I said, “If I’m caught, this is the person you should call.”

When authorities in Cairo first apprehended me, they didn't know I was a digital journalist. And I didn't tell them, and later on, I realised that was a wise thing to do. Because, of course, we later learned that a lot of journalists were killed on that day, the 14th of August. One of them was a cameraman for Sky News.

When I left prison, the first thing I told myself is that, “You’re a journalist still.” I don’t want to be called “the former prisoner”. A nice thing here in Brussels is that you have the Moroccan community, they watch Al Jazeera. And when you go to the areas where Moroccans live, they remember you from watching you on TV, not from you being the former prisoner.

Of course, I’ve had interviews and I spoke at the UN and such. But I always told myself not to indulge too much in this idea. I still want to do news. I would say that you leave prison, but prison never leaves you, to be totally honest. I’m lucky that I managed to get out, because there are people who never got out and people who were killed or disabled. 

There’s a lot of talk about media freedom in Europe these days, especially in places like Hungary and, of course, Russia. Are these situations that you’re following particularly closely? 

On a personal level, I follow it. Yesterday I was listening to a podcast in which they were speaking about Hungary and the government using Pegasus [spyware] against journalists. I think that now there is a lot of compromise between media freedom in exchange for stability in Europe. It’s not just in Hungary, but most recently in Greece with the coverage of the train crash. There were complaints by Greek journalists that access to the location and access to information [was denied]. But of course, so far, this is the most freedom I’ve been able to work in, here in Europe.  

I say what I always say in these cases, which is that journalism is not a crime. 

I have been following the case and the story of our colleague [Evan Gershkovich] of the Wall Street Journal who has been held in Russia. [Gershkovich’s detention] totally follows any dictator’s playbook of oppressing journalism or using it as a way to put pressure on the media, on press freedom. 

I say what I always say in these cases, which is that journalism is not a crime. 

I believe that this is more of a message to the media, not just locally but also international media working in Russia, that there is no way of being impartial or trying to be unbiased, and that the regime in Russia now is trying to divert attention from what's going on in Ukraine with all of these actions. It's something unacceptable, and it shows how, more and more, freedoms of press are becoming targets for these regimes. 

You’re obviously aware of the lobbying scandal in European Parliament being called Qatargate. Are you covering that at all? 

Personally, I’ve been following it because it’s also part of the news. We’ve covered it in a limited way. I’ve been asked quite a few times about Al Jazeera and Qatar, and I always say that I’m not a spokesperson for the Qatari government. But at the same time, Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar, and that’s not something that anyone should hide.  

You’ve been in Brussels for a few years now. How do you like it? 

I like it so much. It’s a small city, so it’s easy to get around. I mostly cycle or use public transportation. Brussels is not the place that likes to boast about itself; it’s the place that you have to see for yourself. Just recently I came back from Stockholm, from the defence ministers’ meeting, and like every time I approach Brussels, I felt like I was coming home. I’m not just saying that because I can’t go back to Egypt. Brussels doesn’t promise you fanciness, but it promises you a cool life. 

When I think of this experience of covering the EU - so not just in Brussels, or the Brussels bubble, as they call it - I think this experience has been the best so far in my life; having this opportunity to go, not just to travel and see different places or understand people, but to see how, with all its flaws, this union has been able to work so far. Especially as a person who comes from a region where travelling is really hard. The fact that you can go across 27 countries very easily, with very few hassles. I know this might sound cliché, or naive, but this always fascinates me, the idea of being able to travel easily without any issues.


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