U.C. Berkeley student's Twitter messages alerted world to his arrest in Egypt
By Bill Brand, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 04/15/2008 01:57:41 PM PDT
BERKELEY _ When Egyptian police scooped up UC Berkeley graduate journalism student James Karl Buck, who was photographing a noisy demonstration, and dumped him in a jail cell last week, they didn't count on Twitter.
Buck, 29, a former Oakland Tribune multimedia intern, used the ubiquitous short messaging service to tap out a single word on his cellular phone: ARRESTED. The message went out to the cell phones and computers of a wide circle of friends in the United States and to the mostly leftist, anti-government bloggers in Egypt who are the subject of his graduate journalism project.
The next day, he walked out a free man with an Egyptian attorney hired by UC Berkeley at his side and the U.S. Embassy on the phone.
Twitter, the micro-blogging service for cell phone users, allows messages up to 140 characters long. Twitter users can allow anyone they wish to join their network and receive all their messages. Buck has a large network, so Twitter gave him an instant link to the outside world.
He recalls advice from his Twitter friends came in mounds of terse messages, "It was a combination of things, my Egyptian friends told me to play the "American bitch" and try to force my way out. " They also told him that it was no big deal and to just stay calm.
"They use Twitter sort of like an instant wire service," he said. "It's the way they keep in touch with each other. They go to an event and Twitter what's happening.
Meanwhile, U.S. friends on his Twitter net called the university and the American Embassy.
They also alerted the Associated Press, the International Herald Tribune and other media, which helped put the heat on the Egyptian authorities. He was released on Friday and returned home on Sunday.
Back home in Berkeley last night he said he's still worried about his interpreter and friend, Mohammed Salah Ahmed Maree, who was arrested with him and is still being held incommunicado by Egyptian authorities. Unlike Buck, he didn't have the muscle of the U.S. Embassy and UC Berkeley.
Buck said that in the middle of the night, hours after his arrest, authorities told him he was free to go.
"I said, 'No' and I stayed for 12 more hours and we started a hunger strike at some point. But they grabbed him (Maree) and put him in a different holding area. Finally, they said they had transferred him to another prison," Buck said.
Then, the Egyptian lawyer hired by UC Berkeley arrived. "I just caved," he said. "I left and he's still in jail. At this point, I've formally called on the Egyptian government for his release. I believe he's totally innocent."
He said Maree, who is 23 and a veterinary medicine student, is from Mahalla El-Kobra, the industrial city in the Nile Delta where they were arrested. "A lot of other Egyptian journalists are being detained, a lot of Egyptian bloggers are in jail, many being held without charges," Buck said.
"I'm very angry and I'm frustrated. I'm an American and I got released and he didn't. It makes me feel guilty and upset and I'm not going to stop until he gets out," Buck said.
There's an online petition, http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/free-mohammed-maree. At 10 a.m. Friday, Buck and others plan a demonstration supporting Maree outside the Egyptian consulate, 3101 Pacific Ave. in San Francisco.
Hossam El-Hamalawy, an Egyptian blogger who is now a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, said the most important thing is to publicize the situation so Egypt will furnish information about where Maree and others arrested are being kept. "Egypt has a huge population of prisoners because of these security crackdowns and any information will also help their families and lawyers, who are trying to find them," he said.
Buck says he'll definitely go back to Egypt. It's a story that's far from over.
He became interested in the Middle East living in Saudi Arabia with his parents, who were teachers there when he was a child. He's from Hanover, NH and after graduation from Colgate, he took a summer job at The Dartmouth, the student newspaper at the college in Hanover.
Buck convinced the paper to send him to Iraq, where he reported on rebuilding in Kurdish Northern Iraq. His recent trip to Egypt was his third. His first was in 2006 on a U.S. State Department grant to study Arabic. "Egypt reminded me of my childhood in Saudi Arabia," he said.
When he was admitted to the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, he chose Egyptian bloggers as his project. "There's no free press there," he said. "The only freedom is on the Internet."
He went with Egyptian blogger-journalists to Mahalla where factory workers were supposed to strike about lack of wages and skyrocketing food prices. But the police had cracked down and there was no strike, he said. He left with everyone else, but returned two days later after police made many arrests.
He was taking photos at a protest, when the police grabbed him. Before he was released they also grabbed his camera memory chip. But they forgot about Twitter.