New York Times journalist helped by Irish diplomats to flee Egypt

Declan Walsh says assumption US government would assist reporters ‘no longer holds firm’

The incident was revealed on Tuesday in an opinion piece by New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger addressing a “growing threat” to journalism around the world. Photograph:iStock

The incident was revealed on Tuesday in an opinion piece by New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger addressing a “growing threat” to journalism around the world. Photograph:iStock

 

The Irish-born New York Times correspondent who had to rely on diplomats from Ireland to help him flee Egypt, says it taught him journalists could not always assume the US government would support them.

Declan Walsh (46) left Cairo in August, 2017 after a tip-off from an American official that he faced possible detention by authorities following the publication of a sensitive article.

However, it simultaneously emerged the Trump administration was aware of the threat but appeared content to let the arrest take place instead of warning him.

Mr Walsh told The Irish Times there has been an “underlying assumption for many years” that when reporters from major American media institutions get into difficulties abroad “that they can rely on the US government to step in and help and apply pressure to stop bad things from happening”.

However, his 2017 experience showed him “these assumptions no longer hold firm”.

The incident was revealed on Tuesday in an opinion piece by New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger addressing a “growing threat” to journalism around the world.

In it, he said the US official who tipped them off had done so without the knowledge or permission of the Trump administration.

“Rather than trying to stop the Egyptian government or assist the reporter, the official believed, the Trump administration intended to sit on the information and let the arrest be carried out,” Mr Sulzberger wrote.

“Unable to count on our own government to prevent the arrest or help free Declan if he were imprisoned, we turned to his native country, Ireland, for help. Within an hour, Irish diplomats travelled to his house and safely escorted him to the airport before Egyptian forces could detain him.”

Mr Walsh, who is originally from Ballina, Co Mayo, has been the newspaper’s Cairo bureau chief since 2015. He has worked for the New York Times since 2012 and was previously expelled from Pakistan for his work there.

It is unclear what specifically angered the Egyptian authorities about his work, although his article examining the death of Italian Giulio Regeni, who was found in 2016 with indications he had been tortured, held claims from sources implicating Egyptian security services. Their response to the article was almost instant.

“It was very fast. I think (the article) went online in the morning and this happened in the mid or later afternoon,” Mr Walsh said of the warning he then received. “We came to the view that I should leave Egypt as soon as possible.”

Having flown to Germany, he later spent a couple of weeks in London before deciding to return to Cairo. As with all of its foreign staff, the New York Times applies careful security planning in such circumstances.

“(I) returned to Egypt and everything was fine in the sense that I returned and I had no problem at the airport and I went back to work,” he recalled.

“I was a little apprehensive; you are worried that whatever the problem was hadn’t gone away.”

The opinion piece also mentions Taoiseach in a section about the “alarming” global spread of “the term ‘fake news’ to justify varying levels of anti-press activity”, a phrase frequently employed by US president Donald Trump.

“It has been used by liberal leaders, like Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar. It’s been used by right-wing leaders, like Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro,” the article says. One of the first times the terms was used by the Taoiseach was in a Dáil debate in April 2018, when asked about a reported row in Cabinet over judicial appointments Mr Varadkar said: “There has been a lot of fake news on the front pages this week”.

Asked in New York about the piece, Mr Varadkar said he hadn’t seen the article but said: “Any time that I’ve referred to fake news - and it wouldn’t be regular - what I mean is news that isn’t true. Unfortunately, it is the case that from time to time, news is reported as news and it turns out not to be true or not to be the full truth. Perhaps it’s not a good term to use, because of its association with President Trump who has a different agenda.”