Freed Canadian journalist shows the power of communications work

October 20, 2016
Cindy MacDougall
Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy with Samantha Monckton at RRU

It was 2014, and Mohamed Fahmy was helping to run a media campaign from a prison cell in Egypt. He had no access to the outside world except through notes passed to his wife during visits. His goal? To free himself.

“I’m used to helping people get their stories out, but this is now about me, it’s about survival, it’s a life or death situation. It’s about getting free,” Fahmy explained to a spellbound class of communications students at Royal Roads University. “So it was very emotional. I mean, we look cool now, but it was very emotional before.”

Fahmy, an award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist, was the Egypt bureau chief for Al Jazeera English in December 2013 when he and two colleagues were imprisoned. They were accused of being terrorists with the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party in the Middle East. He spent 438 days in prison before being pardoned and released in 2015.

The journalist spoke to the Master of Arts in Professional Communication class in residence on the Royal Roads campus, as part of the School of Communication and Culture’s Communications Matters lecture series. With him was Samantha Monckton of Talking Dog Communications, the public relations professional who helped spearhead the Free Fahmy campaign.

Fahmy, Monckton and Marwa Omara, Fahmy’s wife, figured out a communications plan through those passed notes.  The plan had two goals, Fahmy said. The first was to discount the claim he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Our messaging was to distance ourselves from these guys, promote the fact that I have protested against the Muslim Brotherhood,” Fahmy said. “But our messaging back in Canada, during the election for example, was about ‘Harper, call Egypt.’ We needed the prime minister, the most senior official, to contact the Egyptian president directly.”

Monckton said it was important to demystify the job of a journalist, so people could connect with Fahmy.

“We didn’t want to make it anything different than anybody else doing a job, just protecting a person on the job,” Monckton said.

The main vehicle of their campaign was Twitter and other forms of social media.

“Mohamed already knew what the goal was, how not to insult, how to keep it diplomatic, the pacing. We talked about that,” Monckton said. “So we put out one tweet every 10 minutes, counting it down, making it more urgent but not cheeky… We just wanted to show that there was a sense of urgency on [Prime Minister] Harper’s part to act.”

The campaign paid off in worldwide media attention, with more than five billion social media impressions and a petition of almost 50,000 people calling for Fahmy’s release. Fahmy’s lawyers, including renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, used the outcry in court to bolster his defence of being an innocent Canadian journalist.

MAPC student Lindsey Bertrand was one of the student moderators for the discussion. She said Fahmy’s case proves communication work, done well, can be incredibly powerful.

“Ms. Monckton’s communication efforts led to much more than a few people hearing about a far away case, and tweets and petition signatures were anything but empty actions,” Bertrand said. “As professional communicators, we know these results didn’t come easily. They required strategic thinking about communication and culture, multifaceted planning, and flawless execution of outreach tactics.”

The work Fahmy and Monckton started together separated by a prison wall has not ended with his release. While Fahmy was still in jail, they launched the Fahmy Foundation, which campaigns for imprisoned journalists and prisoners of conscience worldwide.

Fahmy said he wants to protect the work of the fourth estate.

“If I ever believed in journalism, that it changes, that it gives voice to the oppressed, that I do make a difference in the world – after this experience I am 100 times more convinced that what journalists do is such a noble job,” Fahmy said.

You can view the full discussion on the School of Communication and Culture's Youtube channel