Hi Reddit

We are...

Egyptian fixer, producer and journalist Aliya - u/aliyacomments

Australian journalist Austin Mackell - u/RTNoftheMackell

Individually, we have covered events such as the Arab Spring, the Green Revolution in Iran and the 2006 Lebanon War. While working as a team, we covered more of the Arab Spring from Cairo and events in Latin America from Ecuador.

While interviewing Egyptian worker rights activists in 2012, we were arrested and spent 6 months on a no fly list facing charges of incitement, before those charges were finally dropped thanks to international intervention during the brotherhoods time in office. After that, we got hitched and moved to Ecuador!

We were amongst the earliest [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riN5EswZX0E] and most vocal voices working in the English language to warn [https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-02/mackell---egypt/4793846] of the dangers of unseating the democratically elected government in Egypt and a return to military rule. A reality which has since had brutal consequences and triggered a re-empowerment of authoritarian tendencies throughout the region. The rest of the press shouldn’t have missed this (and the best didn’t). But mostly there was bias, and a related factual sloppiness. This resulted in large part from foreign journalists taking their lead from what was on twitter, in English. This in a country where a significant portion of the population can’t read or write in Arabic, let alone a second language.

This was a wake up call to the issue of fake, low quality news and the lack of research integrity more broadly - an issue which now dominates every news cycle on every platform. Our first response to this was founding an online magazine which aimed to do transparent journalism, using existing digital publishing tools. This turned out to be a nightmare, involving lots of extra web development and data-management work for journalists, and not producing a product that was radically different enough.

We founded Stone in 2016, and incorporated in 2017, to build better tools and facilitate this new workflow, not just at one publication but across the industry. Since then we’ve worked with our development partners and a small globally distributed team to build free software that allows journalists to show their research and readers to view and rate that research.

It’s available to try at http://www.writeinstone.com

This AMA is part of r/IAmA’s “Spotlight on Journalism” project which aims to shine a light on the state of journalism and press freedom in 2018. Come back for new AMAs every day in October.

Comments: 111 • Responses: 41  • Date: 

HowRememberAll27 karma

What is your opinion on the Green Movement in Iran that was ignored (and therefore, lost) around the same time the Arab Spring happened?

RTNoftheMackell29 karma

I was in Tehran for ten days at the start of that (I wanted to stay longer but my visa wasn't getting renewed, no one's was).

This was in mid 2009, so a year and a half before the Arab Spring. But yes very similar, huge amazing protests, but also huge counter protests.

I am less convinced now than I was at the time that the elections were stolen, and I've written elsewhere that in retrospect I went along a bit with the rest of the press pack on that one. The opposition to Ahmedinejad was big, and passionate, but so was his support base.

cahaseler16 karma

Hi guys, thanks for joining us today!

What's the most important thing you feel like more mainstream/traditional media outlets can learn from independent journalists like yourselves?

RTNoftheMackell24 karma

Hi Cahaseler,

Thanks for your question. Firstly the independent mainstream divide isn't always so clear cut. We've both worked with major league publications. And honestly to us the big difference is between those who are doing the legwork and those who are faking it, and you find both types inside and outside major organisations.

I would say the big problem I perceive with a lot of big media companies is an overemphasis on seniority of staff over proximity to the story. For example, younger Cairo correspondents for major outlets would be pushed aside by brand name boomer reporters who would show up just for big events like elections or whatever. Hope that's helpful!

Thompson_S_Sweetback10 karma

How much has the United States been involved in influencing elections and revolutions throughout the Arab Spring? Was there a point where American intervention ramped up? From over here it felt like the initial revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were almost completely populist and spontaneous, but that later revolutions like Libya being more questionable, and places like Syria or Bahrain being completely unknowable to Western readers due to the heavy level of American interest.

RTNoftheMackell19 karma

The US backed the coup in Egypt, crushing democracy and supporting the dictator, Sisi, who has overseen the most violent period in Egypt's modern history. Libya, Syria and Bahrain all saw legitimate popular uprisings, and if you want to know what went on there you can, it just takes a lot of work to sort the quality work from the bad, something we are trying to make faster with www.writeinstone.com.

Thompson_S_Sweetback9 karma

There seemed to be a lot of demonization of their elected government because the majority was held by the "Muslim Brotherhood." Do you think a more secular government could have faired any better? Do you think the original election was done well? Since the original uprising was so successful and so relatively bloodless, why hasn't Egypt been able to repeat it?

RTNoftheMackell13 karma

Yes I think the danger posed by the Muslim Brotherhood was massively overstated. They were no angels, but their basic plan for egypt involved regular free and fair elections. A secular president might have done better, as was the case in Tunisa. It was easier for the military to mobilise allies in washington against an islamist government, however moderate.

falconwings17 karma

Syria did see an a popular uprising at first, but did it not transform into US backed rebellion afterwards?

RTNoftheMackell9 karma

It became a proxy war, but what the US did is even worse than if they had tried to overthrow Assad. They wanted assad to stay in power, but to be as weakened as possible, so they allowed weapons to flow to the rebels, mostly through third parties, usually gulf countries who favoured the most hardline jihadi groups, but never enough to actually give them a real shot at winning (no MANPADs, especially). It's been a policy of maximum mayhem and suffering so far. Not clear what's coming now. I will add I think the idea of proxy war or conflict between the superpowers in the middle east can be overplayed, Russia and the US compete in Syria, but more often the cooperate. The real aggression is directed at the Arab population itself, who they both agree must be kept powerless. I always think of that line in the poker movie, Rounders, "it's like how you don't see sharks eating each other".

the_goose_says8 karma

Are there any counties that you think may have an Arab Spring revolution in the coming years?

RTNoftheMackell3 karma

All of them, potentially!

Duke_Paul8 karma

Hi Aliya and Austin!

First of all, that's an adorable story and must be great when people ask how you met at parties and such.

Thanks for taking the time to do an AMA with us! I'm curious: you mention the influence of foreign, English-speaking journalists on the narrative in Egypt. Is there similar merit to the influence of Egyptian Arabic media in the region? Also, related to the foreign journalists, is there anything an average person can do to avoid falling prey to such biased reporting, short of learning every language and going to local journalists in every part of the world for their news?


RTNoftheMackell6 karma

Hi Duke_Paul,

Thanks it is a good conversation starter, but we don't go to many parties. We have a toddler now after all.

Not sure what the question is about the "merit" of the Egyptian Arabic Media exactly. Did some/most of them get it wrong? Yes. More or less than the english language press? I wouldn't want to try and guess.

regarding your last question about what the average person can do to differentiate the solidly researched work from the flaky/biased, there's actually very little, short of, as you say, becoming an expert and learning the language yourself. That's what we're trying to change with our app, which you can check out at www.writeinstone.com, idea is to get good journalists on board showing off the work they do behind each story. As a news consumer you could tell journalists that's the kind of thing that would earn your trust!

Duke_Paul3 karma

Thanks! Regarding the Egypt question--I had heard that Egyptian news has an outsized influence in the region as a result of widespread Egyptian Arabic films and television. It seemed like a parallel to the, 'English-language reporters got it wrong but perpetuated a particular narrative,' and I was wondering if the same could be said in the Middle East about Egyptian-Arabic reporting--they may get things wrong but end up establishing the narrative for other stories in the region anyway.

RTNoftheMackell5 karma

Probably the gulf countries, especially their governments, have more influence on the narrative, since they boss the Egyptian government round, and the Egyptian government bosses the Egyptian media around.

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

Yes that's kind of true, but they are controlled by the Egyptian government, and the messaging comes out of there and out of the gulf states.

aupace8 karma

What is the most unsafe Middle Eastern country for journalists today?

RTNoftheMackell14 karma

A google search result may give you a more accurate ranking, and there would be different ways to count. Probably Yemen right now, like literally this week. Not sure. It ranges from appalling to pretty bad basically everywhere except tunisia and lebanon where it's kinda ok.

hpbrowntown7 karma

Following the news of Viktoria Marinova, the Bulgarian journalist who was beaten and raped so badly her body was unrecognizable, and Khashoggi's death in Saudi Arabia - Is this something you've found journalists, especially those in politics, are often aware and cautious of? How do journalists cope with that fear of safety for self/family? How frequently do things like this happen?

RTNoftheMackell10 karma

I had a friend, or acquaintance at least, Syed Saleem Shahzad, who was killed in 2011. He was a hero of mine. He was totally fearless. I don't know how others deal with it. I am not sure people do.

Stuff like this is happening more and more in recent years, too.

hpbrowntown2 karma

Ah, do you think it's actually happening more or just being reported more? I wasn't sure if I was just noticing all the stories more because I'm getting older and reading the news more.

Do journalists tend to try to hide behind false names/maintain a level of anonymity? It seems like such an impossible place to be in, between wanting recognition for your work and building a brand as a journalist, and safety. Incredibly sorry to hear about your friend.

ziggygersh5 karma

Hi Aliya and Austin,

With Hezbollah’s recent activity in Southern Lebanon, as well as the rising tensions between Israel and Iran, do you believe there is a Third Lebanese War on the horizon? 2006 didn’t seem to really solve any of the problems between Israel and Lebanon, do you think a third spat would have a different result?

Thanks for doing this AMA!

RTNoftheMackell10 karma

I actually began my career in south lebanon during the 2006 war. I had just been there on student exchange, and I can tell you this, whatever they say now, no one seriously predicted that conflict. If anything tensions have been higher since, but those tensions are also being played out elsewhere, for example in Syria itself, or in yemen. I have actually been expecting lebanon to fall into much more severe crisis as the war in Syria dragged on than it has, which indicates a strong intereston both sides of the geo-political divide in keeping it reasonably functional...

jamiccdasneak5 karma

As someone studying journalism and looking to get into more meaningful, impactful storytelling, how did you guys ascend to being able to cover war and harsh stories in the Middle East? I don't know what either of you look like, but is it hard to cover if you're of whiter, European complexion? (I am Argentine-Italian from San Francisco Bay Area, USA, but study Documentary at the Missouri School of Journalism. I'm interested in doing longform/microdoc-style stories in this region eventually)

RTNoftheMackell4 karma

Aliya (who went to sleep a while ago) is from Egypt and so always worked there, though I guess you could ask her how she got so well connected with foreign outlets.

My story is odd, I was on student exchange in Lebanon in 2006 when the war broke out, and then I started a blog and a few posts got printed in a newspaper, including on the front page.

I was doing a philosophy degree at the time and so journalism was actually the economically more viable career choice, or seemed to be. And so I came home and had a really hard time finding work in the Australian press, and had to go back overseas to Iran, where suddenly I would get calls from cable news channels (through an agency I connected with through a guy I knew from a language class in Beirut) But even with luck in terms of being in the right time at the right place on a few occasions, and family support that helped me through lean times, it wasn't a huge economic success for me. Hopefully software will be kinder, and hopefully our tool (www.writeinstone.com) can make a difference to the economics of the industry for other journalists.

jamiccdasneak2 karma

Thank you! I plan to check out Stone and see how hopefully I can utilize it as a multimedia journalist myself

RTNoftheMackell2 karma

Awesome. If you need any help hit me up here or on Austin at writeinstone dot com! We love feedback positive or negative.

sch0rl34 karma

With the change in age an education in the last 30 years around the arab world, would you say a new arab spring is almost inevitable? If not , what do you think us the biggest hurdle to overcome?

RTNoftheMackell5 karma

Well repression, especially when it is commited too and there are no limits on the brutality you can get away with, is really effective! That's what all those educated young people are up against. So a lot depends on the political climate in the west.

Mygoatpurrd4 karma

What are your thoughts on the tendency of the American media to focus on the narrative that creates the most outrage and divisiveness rather than presenting the facts in as unbiased and nonsensational manner possible? Is it possible that mainstream media will ever move away from a business model that promotes this behaviour?

RTNoftheMackell8 karma

This is what we are trying to do with writeinstone.com, move the business model away from the related behaviours of hyperpartisanism and low-research journalism (aka churnalism). If you don't want to invest the time to check facts and find out new information, the best way to make original (just) content is to take a story from one of the big outlets (or wherever, who cares), throw a hyper partisan headline on it, and get it published fast before the discussion moves on. We're trying to change journalism methodology in a way that drives eyeballs towards original thorough well researched work... and knowing the subject matter always makes people more sophisticated and less blatantly partisan.

Mygoatpurrd2 karma

Thanks for the response. I think your concept is an interesting one, but I'm not sure I buy the notion that it will change the current paradigm. We got here because journalistic integrity has been displaced by the need for revenue and growth that made low effort content the rule instead of the exception. Do you believe the public at large is demanding a return to journalistic integrity? Seems they are more concerned with latching on to any news source that confirms what they already believe to be true, regardless of the evidence. Then again, I might have it all wrong!

RTNoftheMackell7 karma

Not saying news consumers are angels, but there are people out there, like you I assume, who are really interested in what's going on and who they should believe about it. Our tool gives them a way to get closer to the process before they make their mind up. In terms of outlets and revenue, well yes they need to survive and it's not easy! but we're trying to help. With our tool they can create cheap fast original and informative video content to go along with every article, with minimal changes to existing workflows. Video content is the most lucrative kind. You might notice sometimes news websites will have a headline and a story that match, but inbetween them, above the bulk of the text there will be a video that only tangentally connects at best? Well they shoehorn it in there because they need that pre-roll advertising money. Our system turns the research work premium journalists are already doing into a form of original relevant video content, so they make more money from the same work.

Mygoatpurrd3 karma

Thanks for explaining that. I now see your point on changing the behaviour without changing the model. Best of luck to you both!

RTNoftheMackell2 karma


RTNoftheMackell3 karma

Definitely really actually going to sleep now. It's been great! Will be back to follow up ASAP.

RTNoftheMackell2 karma

Hey guys going to pack it in for the night, coming up to 3:30 am here (in Australia). Thanks everyone for your questions. I will try and answer any new threads I find here in the morning.

bjo0rn1 karma

How cruel of them to arrest and marry you. How is it holding up? ;)

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

I have a witty response for this but I already used it up on the first person to make that joke. Sorry.

Ronburgundy20991 karma

How do you feel about western museums keeping artifacts of historical significance to Egypt?

Do you think they should be returned immediately or is there an arrangement that can be met by both parties?

RTNoftheMackell3 karma

I think both Egyptian self determination, and historic artefacts should be returned to Egypt, and probably in that order.

SprocketMclean1 karma

Why does everyone hate the Kurds so much?

Seriously. Is it just that they want to be their own country, or do they have a mafia, or what?

RTNoftheMackell5 karma

I am not sure the Kurds are particularly hated. They are particularly stateless. That leads to conflict.

SprocketMclean1 karma

Oh. They just casually get gassed by Saddam and oppressed by the Turks. Got it.

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

Sorry what point are you making? Their statelessness and the violence you describe are related.

Spinymad1 karma

What are your favorite Dinosaur(s)?

RTNoftheMackell4 karma

Classic 90s T-Rex on a pure Newman diet. The Air Jordans of Giant lizards. No bullshit.

Barnabas21091 karma

What is your take of the internal Palestinian conflict? What's the scenario for the days after Abu-Mazen?

RTNoftheMackell3 karma

I am sorry I will have to leave this to people who are more up to date on Palestine. It's an area I've never really developed my knowledge in as much as others simply because there are so many well informed people writing about it already.

jdarmody19171 karma

What was the weather like when you got arrested?

What was the weather like when you got married?

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

Arrest: Cold and dry, like end of winter (February). I was glad I had a heavy coat and scarf when we got taken.

A bit warmer and more humid, but not hot, autumn like (November).

CaseyStevens1 karma

Do you think the Arab Spring could have had more ultimate success in changing the governing structures of the middle East if the activists had gotten more open US support?

Am I overestimating US power in the region and over the regimes it allies itself with? How much blame do you think the Obama administration should receive in the eyes of history for what's become of Egypt under Sisi?

RTNoftheMackell2 karma

The Obama administration bears total 100% responsibility for the 2013 coup in Egypt, which is what killed the Arab Spring. They fund and train and generally sugar_daddy the Egyptian military. They could have used that leverage to a) keep the first elected government in power and b) kept them having elections, respecting women's rights etc. Instead they (John Kerry especially) shut the whole thing down. It's an unpopular opinion amongst my lefty millennial friends but Hillary Clinton was doing an amazing job as secretary of state, and seems to have been the reason it ever worked for a second. Once she was out (and Kerry was in) the whole tide turned. Obama didn't have the force of his convictions to stand up to bad impulses in the US foreign policy community.

Jim_Moriart1 karma

What did you think of the movie Wiskey Tango Foxtrot? Are there any similar stories you have?

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

I haven't seen that movie, so can't comment.

Carbon_FWB1 karma

Do you think any place in the middle east could pivot to a successful single party parliamentary republic (like Singapore, for example) since western style democracy seems to be an ill fit, culturally speaking?

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

That's a potential outcome, but I don't see any particular candidates. Maybe one of the gulf states.

I don't think middle eastern countries face cultural barriers to democracy (maybe to liberalism). But the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, the biggest political/social movement in Egypt says Islam and democracy are compatible, and that would be a accepted by a majority based on the polling I've seen.

Carbon_FWB2 karma

Thanks! The rhetoric here in America pushes the idea that all muslims want sharia law, not democracy. But there's a lot of incorrect cultural information here, to be sure.

Your job can sometimes be thankless, so let me say thank you for what you do!

RTNoftheMackell2 karma

Well it's not so simple as one or the other. The polling I was talking about (which I discussed here: https://youtu.be/riN5EswZX0E ) found, for example, that 80% of Egyptians support democracy, and on the same survey 80% of Egyptians support sharia law. So 60%, at least, want both, believing as the brotherhood says, that the two are compatible, or some seeking sone compromise. This makes sense. If you think about people you know, do they have ideological consistency? Or do they middle through with reference to various conflicting value sets?

texastek751 karma

Marriage seems like an awfully tough penalty for getting arrested. How is it working out?

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

Pretty well. I got her pregnant and now she's stuck with me.

Cruise2551 karma

Hi, thank you for doing this AMA

Do you think there is a chance the Arab Spring was deliberately orchestrated by say “The West”as a means of regime change in the Middle East/Arab world ? I have heard some people that may believe that but I’m not so sure

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

No the Arab Spring was deliberately suppressed by the west, which is partner to all the dictatorships.

RTNoftheMackell1 karma


bigsmokecluckinbell1 karma

How was prison?

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

We were moved around a lot, then out after two and a bit days. The main issue was but longest stretch was in some holding cells under the Mahalla police station, I think. They actually put men and our friend Derek in a big communal cell normally used for women, but which was empty so we had lots of space but no lights except a small window. They didn't feed us for 56 hours was the worst thing I guess, actually that was second worst. The worst is not knowing when/whether you're getting out. Indefinite detention is torture.

We were, though, incredibly lucky compared to others especially people arrested before the revolution or since the coup.

bigsmokecluckinbell1 karma

One more question, How was the food.

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

In prison? They didn't feed us till the just before the trial and that was random fast food from outside.

Kinglive51 karma

How did you two get into that line of work?

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

I was on student exchange in Lebanon when the 2006 war broke out.

benjaminikuta1 karma

What do you think about Wikipedia?

What issues need better coverage?

Do you think Wikipedia does a good job of sourcing information from high quality sources?

RTNoftheMackell1 karma

I like Wikipedia. I think it is a huge achievment. I also think Wikitribune is a worthwhile idea. Don't know if it will work though.

In terms of coverage, basically everything could be covered better. Probably the horse-race coverage of politics, as opposed to a policy based discussion, if you know what I mean.

I think Wikipedia does the best job of sourcing information at such a large scale. Professional efforts are far better at targetted information gathering on a particular topic.

salad_memes1 karma

What do you think about the current state of journalist freedom in the Middle East generally speaking?

If you think it's bad, how do you think the international community can help free it?

RTNoftheMackell2 karma

It's terrible and getting worse. The only way to really reverse the trend is to force the authoritarian regimes (which depend to a large extent on the backing of foreign powers) into democratic transitions.

Nevermindever0 karma

Is she hot?

RTNoftheMackell3 karma

As balls.