Journalists Return to Central Cairo, but Threats Remain ,Demonstrations in Egypt

Journalists Return to Central Cairo, but Threats Remain
Live television footage of Cairo’s central Tahrir Square resumed Friday, but it appeared that some foreign journalists were still being detained and fresh reports of attacks on reporters and news organizations suggested that the effort to stifle the flow of news out of Egypt  had slowed but not ended.

As over 100,00 protesters surged into the square, the epicenter of antigovernment demonstrations that began last week, broadcasters trained their cameras on the gathering throngs after having been largely prevented from doing so on Thursday, when attacks on journalists and human rights workers hit a peak. Egyptian state television began showing footage of the peaceful antigovernment protests in Tahrir Square for the first time, but the live images, shot from a distance, obscured much of the crowd and the commentator undercounted the crowd, saying only a few thousand of protesters, both for and against President Hosni Mubarak, had shown up. At the same time, the Al Jazeera television network said that the Cairo office of its Arabic service had been stormed by “a gang of thugs.”

“The office has been burned along with the equipment inside it,” the network said in a statement. “Al Jazeera has also faced unprecedented levels of interference in its broadcast signal as well as persistent and repeated attempts to bring down its Web sites.”

Al Arabiya, whose journalists were chased from their Cairo office by pro-Mubarak demonstrators on Thursday, reported that the Egyptian Army had been told on Friday to step in to protect foreign journalists. There were scattered reports of journalists being harassed and threatened on the street by groups of men. One reported being robbed at knifepoint by a group of men.

On Thursday, it seemed that no news organization was exempt from the widespread campaign of media intimidation. Whether from Western or Arab media, television networks or wire services, newspapers or photo syndicates, journalists were chased through the streets and had their equipment stolen or smashed. Some were beaten so badly that they required hospital treatment.

ABC News reported that one of its crews was carjacked on Thursday and threatened with beheading. A Reuters journalist said a “gang of thugs” had stormed the news service’s office and started smashing windows. And four journalists from The Washington Post were detained by forces that they suspected were from the Interior Ministry. All four were released by early Friday. But two of them, the paper’s Cairo bureau chief and a photographer, had been ordered not to leave a local hotel.

Live television images were so difficult to transmit that by Thursday afternoon, the Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith was showing viewers exactly what his control room in New York was seeing — blank screens from The Associated Press and Reuters television feeds.

Jon Williams of the BBC said via Twitter that Egyptian security forces had seized the news agency’s equipment at the Cairo Hilton “in an attempt to stop us broadcasting.” Both CNN and the BBC relied on taped footage of the square.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which have provided some of the most extensive network coverage of the revolt, said their journalists had been hounded from the street and from vantage points above the square where their cameras had been placed. In the absence of live pictures, the networks relied on grainy amateur video taken on the streets.

Another Arab network, Al Hurra, had what it described as one of the only live feeds from the square on Thursday.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said it had received nearly 100 reports of damage to news organization property or of individuals being detained or attacked.

The intimidation tactics were condemned at the highest levels of the United States government. The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, rebuked the Mubarak government and its supporters, calling the harassment “completely and totally unacceptable.” Speaking to reporters traveling with President Obama, he said that “any journalist that has been detained should be released immediately.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attacks on journalists were an affront to the most basic principles of international law. “It is especially in times of crisis that governments must demonstrate their adherence to these universal values,” she said.

The attacks were aimed at other independent observers, too, including representatives of groups like Human Rights Watch. The Egyptian security police also raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, detaining as many as 16 people, including some of the country’s most prominent human rights advocates and several foreign researchers.

Arab reporters, lacking some of the protections provided by Western media organizations, were especially vulnerable. A reporter for Al Arabiya was beaten by a group of pro-Mubarak demonstrators on Wednesday. His injuries were significant enough that he remained in the hospital, though his condition was not critical, said Nakhle el-Hage, the network’s director of news.

Al Arabiya broadcast a plea to the Egyptian Army to intervene after the network’s headquarters in Cairo came under sustained attack from pro-Mubarak demonstrators who were wielding sticks and knives. “They destroyed some equipment outside the building, and they said they would come in and destroy everything,” Mr. Hage said in a telephone interview from Dubai.

He said the army initially responded by deploying more soldiers to secure the building, but the troops soon left. “The message we got from the army is that ‘you’re left on your own,’ ” he said.

Al Arabiya’s staff was forced to flee to a nearby hotel as the pro-Mubarak mob broke into the network’s office. Four of its journalists stayed at the hotel to report, while others continued to work from their homes or from friends’ homes.

Two employees of Al Jazeera were dragged out of their car on the road from the airport to central Cairo and were detained; in the early evening, the network said that, over all, three of its journalists were still in custody. A spokesman for the network also said that its Web site had faced “security issues.” The site was not available in Egypt or the United States early Thursday, though it appeared to return online later.

Two reporters working for The New York Times were released on Thursday after being detained overnight in Cairo.

The attacks started almost as soon as the violent clashes began near Tahrir Square on Wednesday. “It’s clearly a bad situation these last two days — a stark contrast to the days before that,” said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, which has several journalists in Egypt, including a local translator who was assaulted, detained and later released.

The government has sought to control the information coming out of Egypt since large-scale protests against Mr. Mubarak and his subordinates began in late January. But before Wednesday, the harassment of reporters had been scattered, and efforts to control the gripping images and narratives from Cairo had mostly failed.

“We’ve never witnessed something like this in the Middle East,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “That is not to say that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya were friendly places for journalists. There were massive amounts of harassment, intimidation and reporters put on trial. But you don’t see this level of physical violence against journalists in this kind of sustained fashion and coordination.”

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo, and Brian Stelter from Doha, Qatar.