02.03.11

How the Press Attacks Help the Opposition in Egypt

As Mubarak's thugs viciously attack American journalists, Howard Kurtz says they only help the protesters' cause by making the horrors of dictatorship clearer to Westerners watching at home.

An Egyptian journalist has died of a gunshot wound, making him the first reported casualty of the nation's coordinated attack on the press this week. Howard Kurtz says the attacks only help protesters' cause by making the horrors of dictatorship clearer to Westerners watching at home. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt revolt.

Fox News correspondent Greg Palkot and his cameraman Olaf Wiig ducked into a Cairo building on Wednesday, seeking sanctuary from an aggressive mob.

Photos: Demonstrations in Egypt

Then someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into their hiding place, forcing them back onto the street.

“They got surrounded and pounded—severely pounded,” says Michael Clemente, the network’s senior vice president. “Greg was bleeding heavily. Olaf thought he had a broken jaw.”

Sympathetic protesters helped get the pair to a hospital, but Egyptian authorities decided to hold them on potential charges of spying for Israel. Palkot and Wiig were released Thursday, Clemente says, only after Fox appealed to the White House and State Department for help.

As the Egyptian crisis has turned deadly in the last 72 hours, journalists have found themselves not just caught in the crossfire but targeted for violence by pro-government thugs. The spate of harrowing incidents has made it increasingly difficult for Western news organizations to cover the story, but more than that, it has betrayed the brutality of the Mubarak regime in an unmistakably personal way.

To see media reports that 13 people have been killed and 1,200 wounded on the streets of Egypt is an utterly depressing development, but the victims, to our American eyes, are an indistinguishable mass. But to watch as a mob descends on CNN’s Anderson Cooper or ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, to hear them talk about what happened, puts a face on these brutal tactics.

The correspondents, who of course view themselves as neutral, have in a sense become stand-ins for the oppressed people of Egypt. You don’t have to take their word that Hosni Mubarak’s government is using violence as a tool against the massive waves of demonstrators. The reporters themselves provide the evidence through their personal testimony.

“For the first time in the last few days, you can really feel what dictatorship means,” CBS’s Lara Logan said in a video.

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“For the first time in the last few days, you can really feel what dictatorship means,” CBS’s Lara Logan said in a video made in her Alexandria hotel room—after Egyptian authorities marched her and her crew there at gunpoint, preventing them from filming on the streets. Things soon got worse for Logan, as Time magazine reported that police detained her and her colleagues outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Cooper says two dozen or so men threw rocks and bottles at his team. “I mean, literally a mob of people surround us—you know, I got punched in the head probably a good ten times or so,” he told viewers. “ We tried to walk, we don't want to run because if we started to run, the crowd would, you know, sense fear and attack us even more. All of us are fine. My producer was roughed up. My female producer was roughed up by the crowd as well. But they clearly do not want cameras present in the square and are incredibly hostile to any media.”

One Egyptian soldier tried to intervene, says Cooper, but the crowd ignored him.

Amanpour, the host of This Week, spoke from inside a vehicle that was making a hurried getaway. “We left that angry crowd and got into our car,” she said on the video. “They forced us into our car. And as we started to drive off they hit the car with their fists over and over and threw a rock through the front window. The glass shattered all over our driver.”

Her colleague Brian Hartman and his crew had an even closer call. A group of angry Egyptian men carjacked him and his ABC crew on a road near Cairo’s airport and threatened to behead them. Hartman told his network that they were saved only after an appeal by his Lebanese cameraman. 

“We thought we were goners,” Hartman said. “We absolutely thought we were doomed.”

The list goes on. The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel and photographer Linda Davidson were arrested by police and later released. Two New York Times journalists were also detained before being let go. BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes had his car run off the road by a group of men, and police agents handcuffed him and took him, blindfolded, to an interrogation room. A Danish television correspondent was beaten with clubs by pro-Mubarak forces while delivering a report by phone. Al-Jazeera, which has been banned by Egypt after delivering the most comprehensive video coverage of the conflict, says two of its reporters were attacked en route to the airport.

Parachuting into war zones—and this increasingly feels like a civil war—has always entailed journalistic risks. A number of correspondents have been killed or maimed in Iraq, where at the height of the violence major news organizations didn’t allow their reporters to travel without bodyguards. And journalists have always risked their lives in reporting on terrorism, as the murder of Danny Pearl will always remind us.

But the systematic targeting of journalists by a sovereign government—or armed enforcers with obvious ties to that government—is a new and frightening development. These crude attempts at vigilante justice speak louder than any civilized-sounding rhetoric from Mubarak or his aides.

Of course, journalists, at least those released from custody, always have the luxury of returning to their home country. “For all the talk about reporters in danger, it is Egyptians who face 10 times the risk and have none of our protections,” New York Times columnist Nick Kristof tweeted from Cairo.

From the outset, the American media coverage subtly favored those taking to the streets against an autocrat who has ruled with a steel fist for nearly three decades. Mubarak was a U.S. ally, to be sure, but he was hardly a sympathetic character. The swelling of peaceful protests had a storybook quality, especially because it shattered the conventional wisdom that Egypt was hardly ripe for revolution.

When the regime shut down Twitter, Facebook, and then the Internet itself, it was broadcasting a message to the world: free expression would take a back seat to crushing dissent. Now, by appearing to condone violence against those who would chronicle the uprising, the government has revealed itself. The men with guns and rocks and clubs are trying to draw a curtain of darkness over the ugliness that has erupted.

“It has the opposite effect,” says Fox’s Clemente. “You try to shut the cameras off, you try to shut the pictures down, it makes the rest of the world even more curious to see what’s going on.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.