Media, White House decry attacks on journalists in Cairo

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 3, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Attacks on news media covering the political upheaval in Cairo reached a crescendo on Thursday, as gangs of Egyptian government loyalists clubbed, stabbed and punched dozens of journalists and security forces and military police detained others for hours.

The Obama administration condemned the "systematic targeting" of journalists, and stopped just short of accusing the government of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of directing the onslaught.

"These do not seem to be random events," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "There appears to be an effort to disrupt the ability of journalists to cover today's events."

"We need to be clear that the world is watching the actions that are being taken right now in Egypt. The actions of targeting journalists, that is unacceptable," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "And those journalists, if they are being detained, should be released immediately."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained about the attacks in a telephone call to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the State Department said.

Several press freedom groups accused the Mubarak regime of orchestrating the attacks, which began several days ago with the arrest of reporters for Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news channel.

"The systematic and sustained attacks . . . leave no doubt that a government-orchestrated effort to target the media and suppress the news is well under way," said Joel Simon, the executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Several international and Egyptian human rights activists monitoring the turmoil were arrested in a raid by security forces on a legal center, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The surge in attacks came a day after the news media transmitted to the world dramatic video, photographs and accounts of thousands of Mubarak loyalists attacking anti-government protests in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 10-day-old revolt against the 82-year-old Egyptian strongman.

The news media crackdown fueled fears that the regime was trying to stifle coverage ahead of a fresh assault by Mubarak supporters to prevent a massive gathering called there for Friday, the opposition's deadline for Mubarak to relinquish office.

"It may well be this in anticipation of events tomorrow," Crowley said. "We are bracing for . . . the real prospect of a confrontation."

"One of the possible reasons is that they don't want eyes and ears in Tahrir Square," Ashraf Khalil, a U.S.-born Egyptian freelance journalist who was punched and roughed up with three American and British colleagues, said in a telephone interview from Cairo.

There's no doubt, he continued, that the government was behind most of the assaults on the news media.

"The smoking gun that it is coordinated is just the sheer number of incidents that came out of the blue," said Khalil, who writes for the Times of London and the U.S.-based Foreign Policy magazine's website. "Prior to today, there had been isolated incidents of journalists being roughed up or treated aggressively. But suddenly out of nowhere, someone turned on the tap."

There were numerous accounts of Mubarak loyalists prowling the streets punching, kicking and stealing the equipment of the journalists they caught. The opposition charges that many of regime supporters are plainclothes police.

A number of journalists were injured Wednesday and Thursday, including a Greek journalist who was reportedly stabbed with a screwdriver.

Many journalists were forced to hole up in hotels.

Egyptian security forces and military police arrested reporters and photographers.

The Washington Post said that military police held its Cairo reporter, Leila Fadel, and a photographer, Linda Davidson, for hours Thursday before releasing them. But the newspaper's longtime Egyptian translator and its driver are still believed to be in custody, it said.

Fadel, a former McClatchy foreign correspondent, said she and Davidson weren't mistreated, but their driver was beaten. The two women were handcuffed, blindfolded and interrogated about their activities and required to sign a statement summarizing what they'd said, Fadel told Washington Post Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl by telephone after her release.

At one point, she said, their guards threatened to shoot members of the group if they talked.

The New York Times said two of its reporters were detained overnight and released on Thursday.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees U.S. civilian foreign broadcasting services, said unidentified individuals entered the bureau of its Arabic-language television network Alhurra "and threatened to kill Alhurra's two on-air journalists . . . if they didn't leave the building. The bureau was immediately closed."

"In addition, a pamphlet circulating currently throughout Cairo calls for government supporters to attack Alhurra and Al Jazeera journalists," it said.

Khalil said he thinks that the people who punched and jostled him and his colleagues while they were conducting interviews outside Tahrir Square were ordinary citizens "whose nerves were frayed from 10 days of their lives being disrupted."

They may also have been incited by reports by state-run media and pro-government private outlets blaming "foreign media" for the turmoil, he said.

(Warren P. Strobel in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Miret Naggar in Cairo contributed to this article.)

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