Friday, February 4, 2011

Canadian journalists attacked, detained in Cairo

Canadian journalists attacked, detained in Cairo

Rebecca Lindell, Postmedia News · T

Cairo looks like a battlefield according to a Canadian reporter who has been filing stories amid the sound of gunfire, the smell of Molotov cocktails, the string of tear gas and the threat of imprisonment.

“It’s almost like the world is coming to an end,” Global National’s Jas Johal said Thursday. “It went from fisticuffs, to whips, to Molotov cocktails and people coming out on horses and camels.”

Mr. Johal was one of more than 50 domestic and foreign journalists who faced assault, detention and intimidation at the hand of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and its supporters as the protest seeking to oust the embattled Egyptian president grew more violent.

The move is a signal that the regime doesn’t want the world to see what it will do next, said Rob Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“When the press is there it acts as a restraint. Without us there who knows what happens?” he said. “The administration has its back up against the wall and elements within the administration are reacting by trying to shut down coverage of the unrest.”

The regime has taken a two-pronged approach. In the early days of the unrest, the government shut down the Internet, effectively stopping the distribution of news. Now it is targeted journalists to halt newsgathering.

“They believe that we were causing the problems in this country, that our reporting has led to this problem,” Mr. Johal said.

Mr. Johal was out with his cameraman Barry Acton shooting a story on Wednesday about the crony capitalism under the Mubarak regime when an angry mob accosted them. The pair jumped back into their car when the confrontation became violent.

“They were punching our windows, kicking the car and demanding that we come out,” Mr. Johal said, adding that the scene lasted for 25 minutes until police arrived.

“I’ve had experience in Pakistan. I’ve covered the Mumbai bombing. I travelled to Afghanistan seven times. I’ve covered Israel. I’m used to suicide bombers, I’m used to intimidation, but the lawless nature central Cairo in the last 24 hours was very, very unique,” he said.

Globe and Mail reporters Sonia Verma and Patrick Martin were taken into military custody briefly on Thursday. Journalists from CBC and CTV report having their tapes and camera equipment confiscated. A Radio-Canada producer, Jean-Francois Lepine, and cameraman Sylvain Castonguay were violently attacked after their crew’s interpreter was assaulted without provocation, according to Radio-Canada.

Also missing is a staff member from Amnesty International and two delegates from Human Rights Watch, who were rounded up and taken into police custody.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon called on Egypt to stop targeting journalists.

“All detained journalists should be immediately released and their immediate equipment returned,” he said, adding that he called the Egyptian ambassador to request that the military provide the journalists adequate protection.

The Egyptian regime isn’t the first to try to stifle the international press. The Iranian government threw foreign journalists out of the country in 2009 when protests of the presidential election erupted.

Protesters instead used Twitter and social media to organize collective action and get the news to media outlets, proving that hard line censorship is difficult to sustain in the current technological reality.

Mr. Mahoney said he doesn’t expect the crackdown to effectively curb coverage because the technology and media is simply too big.

“In Egypt the genie is now out of the bottle and there is no way, short of unprecedented crackdown, which would involve the army that the government could shutdown news gathering and dissemination now.”

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