Egypt may not be the most welcoming host for foreign reporters these days. Between official statements denouncing the performance of most foreign media and arbitrary arrests of foreign journalists on the ground, reporting on Egypt’s current conflict is proving to be an increasingly precarious process.
On Saturday, as many reporters flocked to Al-Fath Mosque in Ramses Square to report on the spillover of the previous day’s violence between Muslim Brotherhood protesters, police, army and civilians, many were randomly arrested.
In addition to what is described by some as the usual suspicion of foreigners at a time of heightened nationalist sentiment, arrested reporters told of being called Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers by angry mobs.
Patrick Kingsley, correspondent for the London-based newspaper The Guardian, recounted to Mada Masr how he was arrested not once, but twice, while covering the clashes in Ramses on Saturday. The first time, he was picked up by what seemed to be a plainclothes policeman while he was interviewing people in a corner away from gunfire; but the second time, a mob of civilians got him arrested. Near the Al-Fath Mosque, he described how the group of locals seemed to be taking direction from other men.
“I was then put in between two men on a motorbike and got a few blows on the back of the head,” he said. The man on the back of the motorbike took his phone and laptop. “I don’t know what was happening to me, but I felt it could be the worst. I tried to leave the motorcycle or to shout at pedestrians [for help].”
But nothing worked. Kingsley was eventually taken to a police station after being passed off to another moped. One of the people who held him on the motorbike seemed to be recognized by the police, the reporter said, potentially indicating that the civilians who caught him could have been plainclothes police officers, or at least collaborators with police forces. At the station, Kingsley wasn’t allowed to make phone calls, and was transferred to another police station before he was eventually released.
Following his first arrest, Kingsley tweeted, “Let go. Strict instructions to return to my own country. Noted.”
Kingsley suggested that he was arrested because he was thought to be a Brotherhood sympathizer, which was mentioned to him by the mob that handed him to the motorbike.
A similar accusation was directed at Alastair Beach, a reporter for the London-based Independent who was also covering the Al-Fath Mosque events on Saturday. During his arrest, he was asked if he belonged to the Brotherhood. As Beach was interviewing people in the basement of the mosque, a man wearing civilian clothes asked him for his passport. Albeit not threatening, the man said he would have to take the journalist to the police station. Beach was led to another plainclothes man who seemed to be coordinating the arrests. This man eventually passed Beach on to the army.
In the process of being handed over to the army, Beach got knocked on the head and collapsed for a few seconds. At some point as he was seated on a pavement, he felt someone mildly stabbing him in the back, and when he turned around he found “a kid putting a knife in his bag.” Soldiers eventually fired in the air to disperse the mob, and put Beach in their vehicle.
“It was very nasty. I am just depressed about the situation in general. It doesn’t look like it will stop soon,” Beach said, adding that he thought he usually doesn’t stand out as a foreign reporter due to his features, but the paranoia that day was particularly high.
Egypt’s State Information Service issued a statement on Saturday that may provide a basis for such attacks.
“Egypt is feeling severe bitterness towards some Western media coverage that is biased to the Muslim Brotherhood, and ignores shedding light on violent and terror acts that are perpetrated by this group in the form of intimidation operations and terrorizing citizens, let alone the killing of innocent people and setting churches and public and private property on fire, along with storming police stations and blocking roads and all other forms of thuggery and sabotage,” the statement read.
The statement went on to criticize Western media for only showing opposing stances to the ouster of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi by the military on July 3, and for ignoring the deaths in the ranks of the police and the Armed Forces in recent clashes with his supporters.
In a presser on Wednesday, presidential advisor Mostafa Hegazy slammed the Western media for ignoring attacks on churches and focusing only on police violence against the Brotherhood.
Asked whether the attacks on journalists were thought to be encouraged by the state or an expression of xenophobia, Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists said, “It is both. The government has been taking an adversary position toward foreign media, accusing them of biased coverage; and then they threatened them with a statement.”
“This was reflected on the ground with assaults coming from demonstrators on both sides, acting like journalists are foreign agents,” he added. Mansour highlighted the fact reporters have become a clear target for assassination, citing the four deaths of journalists during the forced dispersal of the Brotherhood sit-ins on August 14.
“There are ominous signs for the press across the political spectrum.”