CAIRO – Journalists became the story on February 3 in Cairo, as groups loyal to embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak harassed, assaulted and robbed foreign correspondents covering the anti-government protests in Egypt. A mob stormed the Al Jazeera office and beat up journalists, one of whom had to be taken to the hospital. Three journalists from Spain were pulled from taxis and assaulted. Jonathan Rugman, correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 News tweeted: “One journalist punched in face, another stabbed in leg by pro-Mubarak thugs in Cairo this morning. On their way to hospital now.” And a large group of men attacked a Spanish journalist and me as we walked back to our apartment not far from the city center. Luckily, some level-headed Egyptians helped us escape the fray.
“Mubarak’s thugs had orders to go after journalists,” said Mikel Ayestaran, correspondent for Basque television and Madrid’s ABC newspaper.
This incomplete list of assaulted journalists suggests that these were not isolated incidents, but a tactical plan to eradicate independent witnesses from the battle between the demonstrators, who had been protesting peacefully for three days, and Mubarak’s supporters. State-controlled television also reported that security forces had arrested armed foreigners, further inciting the populace against non-Egyptians – and at this point if you were foreign and outdoors, you were likely a journalist. Or to the regime, a spy.
[Editor’s Note: On Friday, Feb. 4, SPJ released a statement condemning attacks on journalists in Egypt.]
“We saw a surge phase in attacks against journalists,” Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, told The Guardian on Feb 3. “This is like a return to the first phase, before the censorship, but far more violent and universal. They are now targeting anybody with a camera, notepad, anybody interviewing people – anyone will get violently attacked, anyone they could get their hands on. If you’re a journalist in Egypt at this late stage in the game, they don’t care if you’re from Mars – they’re going to come after you.”
Egypt’s independent press has for years tested the restrictions imposed on the press, while the government responded with scare tactics and criminal charges against journalists. During this latest uprising, however, state-run Egyptian television tried desperately to avoid any mention of rebellion, opting for calm images of the Nile and cooking shows. And if it addressed the protests, the television focused on pro-Mubarak rallies. That was enough for Shahira Amin, deputy head of state-controlled Nile TV, who quit her job Feb. 3 because of its one-sided approach.
The Egyptian revolt emerged from the example set in Tunisia, which sent its dictator packing on January 14. President Zine Abedine Ben Ali’s government controlled the press with a stronger grip than Mubarak in Egypt. For decades in Tunisia, the press could report freely on sports, culture and the wonderful Ben Ali, who was front-page news every day. Anything else was forbidden. But now, the country’s print, radio and television journalists want to uproot the regime’s influence from the press.
“We couldn’t speak about politics, and there was always someone in the government giving us orders,” said Noureddine Boutar, founder and director of Mosaique FM, the country’s first private radio station. “For instance, there was a huge flood two years ago and several people were killed. We recorded people asking who would be responsible for taking care of the victims. One hour before putting it on the air, the communications minister called and said we couldn’t run it, so I had to change it. If not they would have taken us off the air. Here, we were either forced to say things or forbidden to say other things. In the United States, the press is the Fourth Estate, here it was the fifth wheel.”
When Ben Ali left the country, the television and radio airwaves opened to the people. There were no programs, just people venting 23 years of biting their tongues. Sometimes the journalists had to cut people off because they were talking so much. “We had to give the people the chance to express themselves,” Boutar said. “Better the people talking than the politicians.”
Two of Ben Ali’s advisers, Abdel Aziz Bendiah and Abdelwahab Abdallah, dictated the news. According to Chokri Baccouche, editor-in-chief of Le Quotidien, a French-language daily newspaper founded in 2001 with a 25,000 circulation, Abdallah – who curiously was Baccouche’s journalism professor in college – created a system in which all advertising was funneled through the government’s communications agency, known as the ACTE.
“If they want to punish you, they cut off advertising, and there have been cases of police beating up journalists who didn’t follow the rules,” Baccouche said. “We were not free to write about anything. They forced us to publish their propaganda. Journalism was intellectual prostitution.”
The biggest change in policy is slowly taking shape at the state-controlled television station, previously called Tunisie 7 in honor of Ben Ali’s seizure of power on November 7, 1987, but was recently renamed National Tunisian Television. There the journalists are trying to switch from being the government’s mouthpiece to practicing objective journalism.
“Ben Ali’s militia and the police killed a lot of people when the protests moved to Kasserine, my hometown,” said Arem Rjaibi, who has been an on-air reporter for nine years. “From family and friends I knew everything that was happening, but we were forced to say that a small group of masked people were burning things and rioting, to make it look like the problem was a group of criminals.”
During the interview with Rjaibi, a shouting match erupted among reporters and technicians. Many had been working non-stop to cover the situation, sleeping in their offices, while others had taken some revolutionary vacation time. It was clear, however, that the jolt to the system had the station operating without an instruction manual.
“We are in a critical situation right now,” Rjaibi said. “We need to change the editorial line, get closer to people and report on their problems. But the mentality of the old regime is hard to change, and the bosses are stuck. We journalists want to change now, but the people in charge are being slow to do it.”
Deputy editor Nabiha Ben Salah agreed, admitting that certain bosses from the old-guard were trying to sabotage any attempt at journalistic integrity. The journalists, however, were determined to make the national station a credible source of information.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to gain the people’s confidence,” she said. “The national television cannot be an instrument of the party in power, it must reflect the people and their concerns. We must take on this responsibility. Now we don’t have any excuse for not doing this. Now is our time to change. And we must get rid of the journalists or supervisors who do not accept this change. People don’t want to see the same faces in the government, and it’s the same problem for television. They want new faces for a new Tunisia. And I can’t blame them, they are right. We will make changes. It’s time to regain our credibility.”
Mike Elkin is a freelance journalist based in Madrid. He recently wrote about the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions for Newsweek, Wired.com and Archaeology magazine.