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World

Attacks on journalists increase in Egyptian clampdown

A German journalist and her American colleague endured 24 hours of interrogation by Egyptian forces. Their experience is one of an estimated 140 attacks on the media since unrest began in Egypt two weeks ago.

Member of the press lying on the ground surrounded by soldiers.

Members of the press are regularly targetted by Egyptian authorities.

Journalists are increasingly becoming the victims of the continual violence in Egypt. They have been arrested and beaten by authorities who are attempting to suppress coverage of the unrest.

Over recent days, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have both reported a systematic campaign by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime and state media against foreign journalists. Reporters Without Borders have called it an "all-out witch-hunt against the media."

Journalist killed

One Egyptian journalist, Ahmed Mohammed Mahmud, was killed during clashes with pro-government supporters on February 4. Over 100 others have been injured or arrested.

German journalist Souad Mekhennet was one of many foreigners working in Egypt who was targeted. Last Thursday she was detained and interrogated by Egyptian authorities for over 24 hours.

Funeral for Egyptian journalist.

Demonstrators hold a funeral for an Egyptian journalist killed in clashes

Although they were never harmed physically, their experience was designed to intimidate. They were left all night in a cold room, on hard orange plastic stools, under fluorescent lights. Mekhennet told Deutsche Welle that on one occasion, they were forced to fear for their lives.

Fearing for their lives

"We could hear the noise of guns and we thought that this was the end," she said.

Mekhennet and her colleague Nicholas Kulish had been covering the growing unrest in Egypt for the New York Times. They were on their way into Cairo after reporting about the demonstrations from Alexandria when they were stopped by Egyptian forces.

They had been travelling in a convoy with journalists from the German public television station, ZDF. The German crew managed to drive away, but Mekhennet and Kulish were searched. In the boot of their car, Egyptian police found a large black bag containing camera equipment and a microphone.

They were accidently carrying it for the ZDF crew without the correct papers. Mekhennet says that it was this mistake which led to their arrest.

"At the beginning we were stopped because of the equipment and then taken to some kind of undercover police station from the secret police… this how it all started," she said.

Mekhennet and Kulish were handed over to the secret police, the Mukhabarat, and interrogated. They were told that their equipment had been searched and it was clear that they were clean. But they were still detained and denied the right to talk to their embassies.

Extracting information

"At a certain point the equipment didn’t play a role any longer… They kept us in that place and so then, it was more because we were journalists," she said.

Mekhennet says her experience of the prison proved that even Egyptian nationals who give interviews to international journalists are systematically being caught and interrogated.

"We were in this room from which you could very clearly hear how people were beating up and people were screaming."

A camera crew standing on a building overlooking Tahrir Square.

Press from around the world flocked to Egypt to report on recent unrest

"We could hear how in one case, the man said in Arabic to the person he was beating: 'So you're a traitor huh, you spoke badly to journalists about your country,'" she said. "We understood that this must have been someone who gave interviews to journalists and who probably criticized the system so they were basically beating him because of that."

But Souad Mekhennet wasn't the only journalist who was arrested that day.

"Other people were brought in and they were saying - we are journalists … We saw journalists from French television. We saw one colleague who then was sitting on a chair, handcuffed and blindfolded who we had heard earlier on asking with a French accent: 'Excuse me, where am I, where are you taking me?'"

Twitter campaign

Over the past two weeks, journalists from the international news agency, Al Jazeera, have been particularly targeted. They have resorted to Twitter campaigns in an attempt to encourage Egyptian authorities to release their colleagues.

On Sunday, Ayman Mohyeldin, a journalist for Al Jazeera English tweeted: "Two of my colleagues from aljazeera arabic have gone missing in Cairo we don't know who took them."

He was arrested the following day.

Holding the newspaper with his picture, a woman weeps the death of her son

Authorities are keen to avoid damaging headlines

Although agencies protecting journalists are attempting to record every account of attacks on the press, the true scale is unknown.

"Frankly we haven’t seen anything like this in Egypt or even anywhere else in the region," Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North African Programme Coordinator from the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Deutsche Welle. "Such a concerted effort where they are picking up journalists off of the street."

"They're going to hotels where they know international journalists are staying. In some cases they're even going to the bureaus of either the news stations or the TV stations to pick up the people there, to destroy equipment at the bureaus at the studios. That’s why we've described it as unprecedented," he said.

Media blackout

Abdel Dayem claims that these attacks on the press are part of a widespread campaign by President Mubarak and the ruling party to drive the international press away. He says that it seems that this technique is beginning to work.

"Whether it's detaining them or destroying their equipment or beating them up, all those tactics serve the ultimate strategy of intimidating the media and hopefully from their perspective instituting a media blackout which obviously hasn’t occurred yet," he said.

"But obviously journalists are fatiguing, a significant number of international journalists have left Egypt or are leaving Egypt shortly and certainly these tactics are contributing to that."

Author: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill
Editor: Rob Turner

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