Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has won few supporters around the world – and caused even his allies to begin looking around nervously – in his brutal crackdown on protesters in Tahrir Square since 25 January. Of course, a big part of any attempt to contain a revolution is controlling and censoring the media. Journalists haven't escaped Mubarak's wrath; in fact, they've been specifically targeted. It's a reminder that the fight for political freedom and freedom of expression is a single cause. By THERESA MALLINSON.
Independent journalists have never been dictators' favourite bunch of people, and Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak is no exception. The brutal and violent crackdown on the media in Egypt over the last week has seen scores of journalists threatened, beaten up and arrested. ABC has compiled a list of all the journalists who've been harassed, listing 66 separate incidents – many of them involving more than one person. Although this list was last updated on 4 February, it has grown since then. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has its own list, published on 5 February, which states that 114 journalists have been threatened in the last week. And Reporters Without Borders also published a list. The numbers are frightening:
- Journalists dead: 1 (Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud from Al-Ahram)
- Journalists attacked but not detained: 75
- Journalists detained for at least 2 hours: 72
- Journalists we don't have any news about: 7
- Case of material harmed and media offices closed: 25
- Media most targeted: Al Jazeera, with 3 reporters attacked and 4 detained (all released) and office trashed
- Countries with the most harassed journalists in Egypt: US (29 and a VoA team); France (18); Poland (9); Qatar (7).
The growing list of journalists who've been threatened includes those from all the big international media organisations – Associated Press, the BBC, Bloomberg, CNN, Fox, The New York Times, Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Voice of America, not to mention Al Jazeera. It's the Qatar-based broadcaster that's faced the most sustained attack from the Egyptian government, with the network being ordered to shut down on 30 January. The official Middle East News Agency reported on its website: “The information minister [Anas al-Fikki] ordered... suspension of operations of Al Jazeera, cancelling of its licences and withdrawing accreditation to all its staff.” This hasn't deterred Al Jazeera staff, who have valiantly continued to report what's happening in Egypt to the rest of the world, despite their offices being vandalised and threats to their personal safety.
Abdel Fattah Fayed, Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief, and journalist Abdel Fattah Fayed were arrested on Saturday, but later released. Another Al Jazeera correspondent, Ayman Mohyeldin, was arrested on Sunday, and only released nine hours later, after international pressure, including a call from US secretary of state Hillary Clinton for the harassment and detention of journalists to cease. The Egyptian government, however, has denied that there is an official policy targeting activists and journalists. Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told CNN on Sunday that arrests of journalists and human rights activists “are not allowed at all”.
It's hard to give Shafiq's words much credence. New York Times' journalists Souad Mekhennet and Nicholas Kulis have written a harrowing account of the 24 hours they spent in detention late last week, during which time they were interrogated by Egypt's secret police. “Captivity was terrible. We felt powerless – uncertain about where and how long we would be held. But the worst part had nothing to do with our treatment. It was seeing – and in particular hearing through the walls of this dreadful facility – the abuse of Egyptians at the hands of their own government.
“For one day, we were trapped in the brutal maze where Egyptians are lost for months or even years. Our detainment threw into haunting relief the abuses of security services, the police, the secret police and the intelligence service, and explained why they were at the forefront of complaints made by the protesters.”
Photo: A member of the press lies on the ground after being attacked by mobs while soldiers surround him in Cairo February 3, 2011. The United States and Britain condemned the intimidation of foreign reporters covering protests against President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday. Picture taken Fenruary 3, 2011. REUTERS/Kyodo
Simon Allison, who has been reporting from Cairo for The Daily Maverick and Free African Media, believes there was a decision to target journalists, which was not made, or at least not communicated, until just after dark on Wednesday. “Prior to that, and for at least an hour after dark, I had been able to walk among Mubarak supporters and, in the morning, even film their protests, without any hassle,” he says. “The aggression towards journalists only began in earnest in the early parts of the evening, as far as I was aware from my positions in and around Tahrir Square.”
Allison escaped arrest, but his time in Cairo was not without its hairy moments. He was saved by the fact that he'd cunningly left all his equipment in his hotel room, as well as Egyptians' respect for Nelson Mandela. “On the ground, I had no idea journalists were under threat until I experienced it myself – finding myself in a pro-Mubarak area, my vehicle was surrounded by aggressive young men who demanded documentation. I denied being a journalist – fortunately, I had previously removed the memory cards from my camera and video as a safety precaution, so they found no incriminating digital evidence. My nationality proved vital, on this occasion and time and time again over the next few days. South Africans, by virtue of not having being part of any of the 'plot to overthrow Mubarak' countries (Europe, US, Qatar, Israel), were considered friendly. In fact, I discovered from a number of Mubarak's goons that a love of Hosni Mubarak and a love of Nelson Mandela are not mutually exclusive sentiments.
“The targeting of foreigners in Tahrir and its surrounds – on the assumption that all journalists are foreigners – continued for the next couple of days. Informal though not ineffective – checkpoints were established by Mubarak's men on the roads leading to the square,” Allison says. “Sometimes I succeeded in getting through the checkpoints, my cover story and passport getting me through, as well as the fact that I'd left all the tools of my trade behind – no camera, no video, no notebook – not even a pen. More often I was stopped, and occasionally threatened – sometimes with the confiscation of my passport, sometimes with arrest, and on one occasion with a knife. However, there was clearly a level of organisation and bureaucracy in place among the Mubarak forces which meant I never seriously felt that my physical safety was threatened. I must point out this was not the experience of other journalists, and again I believe my passport protected me to a significant degree.”
As well as the threat to his safety, Allison says he was prevented from doing his job properly: “My movement was restricted – I could not get where I wanted to go or talk to who I wanted to talk to. A couple of good interviews – one with a Muslim Brotherhood MP, a very important figure in the party – fell through because I could not move freely.”
The government's crackdown on the international media, as well as independent Egyptian journalists, goes hand-in-hand with its policy of spewing out propaganda through the state-owned television channels, radio stations and newspapers. American-Egyptian journalist Ahmed Amr outlines the full extent of this in a guest column for the Informed Consent blog. “To give you an idea of how disgraceful Egyptian state journalism can be; it took 10 days for the official newspaper, Al-Ahram, to notice that the demonstrator’s essential demand was for Mubarak to abdicate his throne. Until yesterday [Sunday], the flagship of the government’s propaganda machine portrayed the demonstrations as rallies against high food prices and unemployment and in support of unspecified ‘reforms’. The day after the slaughter at Tahrir Square, Al-Ahram boasted this headline ‘Millions demonstrate in support of Mubarak’. The reporting is so scandalous that many government-employed journalists have quit in protest and others are simply refusing to write.”
But with the plethora of alternative information available online, many Egyptians are exposed to viewpoints that differ from the official line. Despite the government's attempts at shutting down coverage, this is one revolution that is being televised, blogged, tweeted and generally communicated. Whatever path events in Egypt take over the next few months, a key indicator of real change will be whether an independent media is allowed, and encouraged, to flourish. Until then, our thoughts are with those brave journalists who are making sure the story of the Egyptian revolution is told to the world. FAM
- A list of journalists who have been harassed while reporting in Egypt on ABC,
- Tally of cases of abuse against journalists at Reporters Without Borders;
- Official Egyptian press tells tall tales about the protesters at Informed Comment;
- Two detained reporters saw police's methods at The New York Times.
Photo: A plainclothes policeman (L) runs to attack a foreign journalist as others beat a protester in front of two boys (not seen in picture) during a demonstration in Cairo January 28, 2011. Police and demonstrators fought running battles on the streets of Cairo on Friday in a fourth day of unprecedented protests by tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.
The text of this article by Free African Media is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 South Africa License. Note that this does not include photographs or images, which may be encumbered by copyright. For more information, see our reuse page.