Egyptian Minister of Defense Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi
Credit: AP Photo/Jim Watson, Pool
The Egyptian military’s ongoing clashes with the supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi have caught journalists seeking to cover the strife in the crossfire with some claiming that they are being intentionally targeted.
Since the decision last week to clear out the Muslim Brotherhood-organized sit-ins staged in protest of the military’s removal of Morsi in July, the resulting fighting has killed and wounded thousands of Egyptians. In the first days of the fighting, three journalists were killed, including a British cameraman and Egyptian and Emirati reporters.
While troubling and certainly more deadly than in the past, the current mistrust of the press under the military-backed government’s auspices aren’t precisely new ground in the Egyptian political sphere. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented the polices the country’s most recent string of leaders put into place to allow the ongoing suppression of press freedoms in a report released last Wednesday.
Morsi’s government was no friend to the press, carrying over rules regarding censorship and state-control over the media from the government of long-time Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, such as appointing a new Minister of Information. In the time after he assumed the presidency, the new government pushed through a revised constitution that locked in new constraints on journalists, including new crimes like “insulting the Prophet” and unleashing hundreds of new criminal complaints against media outlets. “In one year of Mursi’s presidency, more journalists were prosecuted than in the 185 years of the Egyptian press before,” political commentator Hisham Kassem told AFP.
Following Morsi’s removal, the military and transitional government struck out against news outlets that remained supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, including shuttering five pro-Morsi stations invoking “incitement to violence” as justification. While the more liberal press has yet to be fully targeted, as they generally support the military’s actions against the Brotherhood, that is in no way guaranteed in perpetuity. The transitional government has made overtures towards starting a “dialogue” about media ethics, but generally still seek to continue to have the state decide the rules under which journalists can operate.
The continuation of press curtailment wasn’t always destined to be the case following the Egyptian revolution in 2011. After the fall of Mubarak, the pro-democracy group Freedom House changed its rating of Egypt from “Not Free” to “Mostly Free,” citing the expansion of independent media voices and the loosening of some government control over the media. Since then, however, the actions of first the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, followed by the Morsi government, have trampled any expectation that journalists would be given the freedom to operate in a new Egypt.
The result is that journalists have frequently found themselves the targets of harassment and pressure from the new government and Egyptian citizens alike in recent days. CPJ has chronicled several instances of such treatment since the clashes began, including stories of reporters from France, Turkey, and Brazil being arrested and stripped of their equipment. Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Sham was “transferred to Abu Zaabal prison on Sunday, extending his detention for a period of fifteen days without due charge,” according to a release from the network. The prison in question is the same where dozens of protest detainees were killed by security forces in what the authorities say was an attempted escape.
Patrick Kingsley, a correspondent for The Guardian, was actually arrested twice in his attempts to cover the fighting in Ramses. A plainclothes police officer took him in the first time, where he was let go with a warning to return to his own country. The second arrest was at the hands of a small mob, which hauled him off to a local police station. “I was then put in between two men on a motorbike and got a few blows on the back of the head,” he said, describing the incident to Mada Masr.
“Recent statements by Egyptian authorities against the foreign media are deeply disturbing. Having successfully silenced many critical local news outlets, the government is now trying to harangue, harass, and intimidate international journalists into toeing the line,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. “Furthermore, the government’s shrill accusations of bias appear to be the basis for several civilian attacks on journalists.”
The crackdown isn’t limited to foreign journalists. Tamer Abdel Raouf, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram’s regional bureau chief, was shot dead at an Egyptian army checkpoint on Monday night, the army said in a statement. Hamed Al-Barbari, a reporter for the Egyptian daily Al-Gomhuria who was travelling with Raouf, sustained hand and leg injuries in the shooting and is currently hospitalized. “No excessive gunfire was opened on the car in question nor any killing of those in it intended,” the statement said, claiming that the car Raouf had been riding in was breaking the dawn-until-dusk curfew the army has imposed. Journalists are supposed to be exempt from the curfew.