Egypt protests: journalists under attack on an 'unprecedented' scale

Egypt has been the scene of more than 100 incidents involving the harm or detention of journalists in the past 36 hours, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
In Egypt, a plainclothes policeman (l.) runs to attack a foreign journalist as others beat a protester during a demonstration on Friday. Journalists have been the target of assault for two days running.

Reports of severe attacks and detentions for journalists working in Egypt paint a dark picture of an orchestrated attempt to shut down the information flow from a country in turmoil.

There have been more than 100 incidents of beatings, detentions, and assaults on journalists in the past 36 hours, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). While CNN’s Anderson Cooper may be one of the highest-profile incidents involving a member of the US media, journalists from all over the world – including Egypt – have been targeted.

“This is on a scale that is unprecedented,” says Rob Mahoney, deputy director of CPJ.

The crackdown takes place as journalists come under fire more often and with clearer intent than at any time in modern history, he says. "Most journalists who die are murdered. They don’t step on land mines – and 85 percent of those murders go unpunished,” he adds.

The US State Department would not rule out the possibility that the Egyptian government is behind the crackdown.

"We condemn in the strongest terms attacks on reporters covering the ongoing situation in Egypt. This is a violation of international norms that guarantee freedom of the press and is unacceptable under any circumstances," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a press briefing Thursday. “The Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists’ ability to report on these events to the people of Egypt and to the world.”

The US has raised these issues with both the Egyptian ambassador in Washington and ministry officials in Cairo, according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

The developments raise the question: Why is the press coming under such fire? The logic of attacking reporters amid the Egyptian demonstrations is one that is common in political uprisings, says Barbara DeGorge, academic dean at Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“The demonstrators see the journalists as being aligned with the Mubarak government and are angry at them for their support of a repressive regime,” says Ms. DeGorge, who has just returned from six years stationed in Dubai.

At the same time, older, more-conservative Egyptians view the presence of cameras in the midst of an internal dispute as a threat to their country’s stability. “They tend to see Western journalists as reporting news that is beneficial to Western interests, not their own. So they are very suspicious,” she says.

While reporting has always been an inherently messy and potentially dangerous job, “there used to be an intrinsic respect” for the work being done by the fourth estate, says Gene Grabowski, chair of the Crisis and Litigation Practice at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington.

Mr. Grabowski began as an Associated Press reporter in the late 1970s – the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle. These days, the sheer number of people who can set themselves up as some form of journalist has exploded, points out Mr. Mahoney of CPJ. “Today, anyone with a flip-phone camera and access to a blog can call themselves a journalist,” he says.

They can reach more people and do the same job for pennies. Only 25 years ago, a professional would have had to pay thousands of dollars and had access to a pricey satellite uplink to deliver his or her report.

When reporters cover political turmoil in nations that lack the institutions of free speech, it is common to view journalists as threats to the status quo, says Leonard Shyles, an associate professor of communication at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“The idea that the public will find out things that are inconvenient to the power holders prompts them to limit access to reporters to avoid scrutiny and preserve anonymity,” Professor Shyles says via e-mail. He adds, “At such times, journalists are at risk and come to be viewed as threats to be thwarted, sometimes at the cost of their lives.”

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann is among the many reporters in Cairo who were roughed up and warned to stay away from the political demonstrations. He says he spent Thursday in his hotel.

“I read a poll that said reporters are trusted less than car salesmen,” he said by phone from his hotel in Cairo. However, he notes, the stakes are high in this battle for who will control the information flow. Important decisions are made on the basis of information, and “people have to get their information somewhere,” he says.

Outside media attention provides one of the few pressure points on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as protesters demand change. “The thuggery of the last few days is much easier for Mubarak to get away with if nobody is reading about it or seeing it,” he says.

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