Egypt government supporters attack foreign journalists
Loyalists of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attacked foreign journalists Thursday, drawing Washington’s censure and international rights groups’ accusations that the beatings and detentions were desperate moves by a teetering regime trying to cling to power.
Although the abuse of reporters and camera crews risked discrediting Mubarak in the eyes of already wary democratic allies, it also served to mobilize his supporters against a 10-day-old campaign for his ouster and block some of the damaging imagery from reaching readers and viewers around the world.
What began as seemingly random incidents in which journalists were roughed up by Mubarak backers Wednesday escalated Thursday with the arrests, beatings and destruction of equipment of dozens of journalists covering the chaotic confrontation in central Cairo.
The attacks on media and human rights monitors numbered in the dozens and followed broadcasts on Egyptian state television casting foreign journalists and Western governments as fomenting the unrest that has paralyzed the economy, chased away tourists and threatened to further impoverish workers in the Middle East’s most populous nation.
Obama administration officials said they saw the attacks as part of a deliberate strategy of intimidation.
“Any journalist that has been detained should be released immediately,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, deeming the targeting of reporters “completely and totally unacceptable.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attacks were “unacceptable under any circumstances,” and department spokesman Philip J. Crowley called the mistreatment “a concerted campaign” orchestrated from within Mubarak’s inner circle.
“We have traced it to elements close to the government, or the ruling party,” Crowley told reporters in Washington. “I don’t know that we have a sense how far up the chain it went.”
The Washington Post, the New York Times, CBS News and the global Al Jazeera network reported the detention of correspondents trying to report on the growing lawlessness gripping the Egyptian capital.
Reporters for National Public Radio and Foreign Policy magazine suffered blows to the head from pro-Mubarak thugs. Reuters television reported that a camera crew was beaten up near Tahrir Square while filming a story about the unrest’s economic fallout. A Swedish television journalist for SVT whose editors feared that he had been kidnapped was found in a Cairo hospital, severely beaten. A Greek journalist for the newspaper Kathimerini was stabbed in the leg, and a photographer with him struck on the head.
A day earlier, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Christiane Amanpour said they were punched and kicked by pro-government henchmen who also smashed their crews’ equipment. The Mubarak supporters descended on Tahrir Square — some clad in uniforms of Giza pyramid sentries and riding camels and horses — to attack what had until then been a peaceful protest of the president’s 30-year grip on power. Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole and two Associated Press reporters were detained while covering the melee, as were journalists from Al Arabiya network, four Israeli correspondents and a Belgian who was writing for French-language publications.
Fox News Channel reported that correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Olaf Wiig were “severely beaten” Wednesday, and BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was detained, blindfolded and interrogated after his car was forced off the road in Cairo.
In his first televised interview since being named vice president five days earlier, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman blamed foreigners and the opposition Muslim Brotherhood for the disruptions that he said had cost Egypt at least $1 billion in lost tourism income.
“I blame some friendly states that have completely unfriendly stations which set the young against the state … with false claims and exaggeration,” Suleiman said. He urged Egyptians to ignore “the rumors and satellite channels that incite you against the state.”
That deflection of blame for Egyptians’ misery appeared to encourage Mubarak loyalists to exact revenge on journalists, seen as responsible for conveying an image of Egypt and its treasured antiquities as too dangerous to visit.
“The government has resorted to blanket censorship, intimidation and today a series of deliberate attacks on journalists carried out by pro-government mobs,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The group reported 21 assaults on media, two dozen arrests and five instances of camera equipment being destroyed Thursday.
Tala Dowlatshahi, a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, said the imagery now being broadcast in Egypt “looks very much like a media strategy has been devised by Mubarak to use men for hire to create a scene of chaos and to hijack the democracy movement.”
Human rights monitors also denounced the apparently orchestrated moves to intimidate and muzzle foreign media representatives and rights advocates.
“These actions mark a new low in the Mubarak regime’s futile attempts to silence the Egyptian people and hide mounting calls for reform from rest of the world,” said Neil Hicks, international policy advisor for Human Rights First. The U.S.-based group also wrote to major international telecommunications companies to ask what orders they got from the Egyptian government about shutting down cellphone and Internet access as the anti-government protests gathered momentum.
Egyptian authorities ordered Al Jazeera, a network that reaches 220 million households worldwide, to cease broadcasting from the country as the protests built last week, forcing its journalists to resort to Internet and telephone reports from the scene. Those communications were also blocked during the height of the protests, although some telecommunications providers activated idle and outdated dial-up lines to help customers in Egypt get connected.
Times staff writer Melissa Maerz in New York contributed to this report.