Journalists under attack in Egypt

Foreign journalists were beaten with sticks and fists by pro-government mobs in Cairo this morning, and dozens were detained by security forces.

The US condemned what it called the “systematic targeting” of the reporters, photographers and film crews who have brought searing images of Egyptian protests to the world.

Foreign photographers reported attacks by supporters of President Hosni Mubarak near Tahrir Square, the scene of vicious battles between Mubarak supporters and protesters demanding he step down after nearly 30 years in power.

The Egyptian government has accused media outlets of being sympathetic to protesters who want Mubarak to quit now rather than complete his term as he has pledged.

Among the many detained were correspondents for The New York Times, Washington Post and Al-Jazeera. Human rights groups said many activists were taken away after a raid by the military police on a legal centre in Cairo.

“This is a dark day for Egypt and a dark day for journalism,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Egypt is seeking to create an information vacuum that puts it in the company of the world’s worst oppressors.”

CPJ said some state-owned television and private stations owned by businessmen loyal to Mubarak had been portraying journalists as part of plots to destabilise Egypt.

BBC foreign editor Jon Williams said via Twitter that security forces seized the network’s equipment in a Cairo Hilton hotel in an attempt to stop it broadcasting. Many international news organisations have been using the Ramses Hilton overlooking Tahrir Square as a base to cover the mayhem.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denounced reports of “systematic targeting” of journalists in Egypt. The State Department described it as a “concerted campaign to intimidate.”

The Sunday Times newspaper’s foreign affairs correspondent, Marie Colvin, said armed men gathered outside a home where she was interviewing the family of a protester who’d been shot.

The men of the family locked her in a nearby shop and then helped her through the shoving, shouting crowd to a car, she said.

“What happened today was terrifying,” Colvin said. “And you can’t call the police.”

“I think we need to be clear that the world is watching the actions that are taking place right now in Egypt,” Gibbs said.

Douglas Jehl, foreign editor for The Washington Post, said on the paper’s website that Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel and photographer Linda Davidson were held by military police and released. Their translator, Sufian Taha, and driver, Mansour el-Sayed Mohammed Abo Gouda, were believed to remain in custody, Jehl wrote.

Pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera said three of its journalists were detained by security forces and another was missing.

Egyptian authorities have complained the network’s coverage was slanted in favour of protesters and could encourage unrest.

Al-Jazeera also said equipment was stolen and destroyed during the 10 days of protests and its broadcast signal was disrupted across the Arab world.

The Arabic-language satellite channel Al-Arabiya pleaded on an urgent news scroll for the army to protect its offices and journalists.

Two Japanese freelance photographers were attacked while covering the protests in Cairo, and one of them was slightly injured, the Kyodo News agency reported. It was not clear whether they were assaulted by pro- or anti-Mubarak protesters.

The Paris-based all-news channel France 24 said three of its journalists had been detained for 24 hours, then freed for several hours, then detained again.

The Toronto Globe and Mail said two of its reporters were detained by the military for about three hours. One, Sonia Verma, said the pair was picked up with about 25 other foreigners, including other journalists.

The Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini said its correspondent in Cairo was briefly hospitalised with a stab wound to the leg after being attacked by pro-Mubarak demonstrators in Tahrir Square. A Greek newspaper photographer was punched in the face.

The injured Greek correspondent, Petros Papaconstantinou, said on Kathimerini‘s website that: “I was spotted by Mubarak supporters. They … beat me with batons on the head and stabbed me lightly in the leg. Some soldiers intervened, but Mubarak’s supporters took everything I had on me in front of the soldiers.”

The leaders of France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain said in a joint statement that the “attacks against journalists are completely unacceptable.”

Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford said that “AP journalists in Egypt have faced the same harassment and intimidation as other news organisations.”

One Associated Press location was disrupted by men wielding sticks, and satellite equipment was taken.

“The situation was quickly defused,” Colford said. “No one was injured.”

Other news outlets reporting beatings and detentions include Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT, whose Egypt correspondent, Metin Turan, lost a tooth after being beaten by pro-Mubarak demonstrators with batons. His camera, money and cell phone were stolen.

Polish state television TVP said that two of its crews were detained in Cairo. One was released after one of its cameras was smashed, it said.

Government spokesman Magdy Rady denied government involvement in attacks on reporters and said officials welcomed objective coverage.

“It would help our purpose to have it as transparent as possible. We need your help,” Rady told The Associated Press. However, he said some media were not impartial and were “taking sides against Egypt.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper said he, a producer and camera operator were set upon yesterday by people who began punching them and trying to break their camera. Another CNN reporter, Hala Gorani, said she was shoved against a fence when demonstrators rode in on horses and camels, and feared she would be trampled.

“This is incredibly fast-moving,” Cooper said. “I’ve been in mobs before and I’ve been in riots, but I’ve never had it turn so quickly.”

In yesterday’s fighting, security forces did not intervene as thousands of people hurled stones and firebombs at each other for hours in and around Tahrir Square.

There were reported assaults that day on journalists for CBS, the BBC, Danish TV2 News, Swiss television and Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper, among other organisations. Two Associated Press correspondents were also roughed up.

Jean-Francois Lepine of Canada’s CBC all-French RDI network said that he and a cameraman were surrounded by a mob and were rescued by the Egyptian army.

“Without them, we probably would have been beaten to death,” he said.

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