The killing of Islamist protesters: State censorship or self-censorship?

The recent violence at the Republican Guards headquarters has left the country reeling, media institutions included. As the latest development in a lengthy run of unprecedented events, tensions surrounding the incident — in which over 50 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed by army gunfire outside the Republican Guards headquarters —continue to build, particularly regarding the question of who instigated the attack.

Shortly after dawn on Monday, residents of the area surrounding the Republican Guards headquarters in Nasr City began circulating reports on social media of clearly audible, and sustained, gunfire. Not unusually, these initial reports were deeply contradictory. Some claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood protesters — in the second day of their sit-in outside the Republican Guards headquarters, where former President Mohamed Morsi is allegedly being held — attempted to storm the premises by force. Meanwhile, other reports continue to censure the military for launching such a brutal, and unprovoked, assault on protesters during fajr (dawn) prayers. The actual event received no live coverage from the country’s media outlets; the treatment wards at the hospital following the event only marginally more so.

On Monday afternoon, the military gave a press conference during which its spokesperson claimed that soldiers stationed at the Republican Guards headquarters had opened fire in self-defense against a sudden attack by what has since been referred to as an armed “terrorist unit.” The military then released what it claimed were videos and images corroborating its claims; brief clips heavily re-run by state and formerly opposition media outlets alike, depicting individuals, mostly bearded, firing shots in the direction of the army’s cameras.

Since the attack, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has shown no qualms about exploiting the attack on their members as a means to gain sympathy for their embattled organizations, with officials since making public threats to the Armed Forces, as well as releasing gruesome images of the Republican Guards martyrs — some of which were revealed to have been taken from the ongoing crisis in Syria.

In the meantime, with both camps employing escalation as a method of conviction, the question of who actually prompted Monday’s violence is not only no closer to being answered, it’s slowly changing into something else altogether.

Speaking to Mada Masr, a video journalist for a prominent news organization that he describes as “opposition” recounts how he and his colleague were asked by the editorial board to alter content relating to the incident. Shortly after posting videos taken from outside the Republican Guards headquarters, Adel [not his real name] was asked to delete them from the paper’s YouTube channel. “I explained that people had already seen the video since it was posted, and that deleting it all together would lead to questions,” Adel explains. As a result, the video was edited online instead, and the offending clip removed.

“It was a clear shot of three or four soldiers, hiding behind the wall of the [Republican Guards headquarters],” Adel recalls. “Every few moments you’d see one of them peering over the wall, taking aim, and shooting his automatic rifle into the crowd of protesters.”

Adel stresses that his colleague, who filmed the video, missed the start of the attack, whoever was behind it. “Nobody was there to cover how this all started,” he states. “By the time we got there, there was the usual street fighting setup, so we didn’t get any video evidence of who started what. But it was very obvious in the clip [that we were asked to remove] that, at that particular moment in time, there was nothing to justify the way soldiers were shooting at the protesters.”

He also stresses that neither he nor his colleague ever actually witnessed weapons such as the hand grenades, shotguns, pistols, knives and nunchucks seen pulled out of protester tents and backpacks by raiding soldiers in the military’s released footage. “They had sticks, yes,” Adel claims, “and slingshots and tired old things like that.”

“It’s very possible that some of [the Brotherhood protesters] were armed, but they probably would have been the first ones to flee the scene,” Adel says.

It’s a possibility that, for the moment, seems to worry him less than the reality of self-censorship. “We were told to remove the videos we had posted and wait for the military’s press conference,” Adel smirks, “so that we could hear the army’s perspective and get the full story. We were told ‘what if the military explains that it was shot at first?’”

Similarly, a report appeared on the privately owned daily Al-Shorouk’s website, only to be taken down shortly afterwards. The article, which quotes several residents of the Obour Buildings overlooking the Republican Guards headquarters, offers the clear conclusion that soldiers opened fire and launched tear gas canisters at the protesters “with no provocation.”

Although taken down, the article has since reappeared on numerous websites, usually accompanied by accusations and rebuttals in the comment section, such as the oft-repeated claim that the Obour Buildings are known to have a large number of Muslim Brotherhood members among its residents.

Al-Shorouk has since explained that the original piece was taken down out of redundancy, and incorporated into another piece — one which barely mentions the controversial claims.

Should this prove to be a growing trend, Adel believes it constitutes a cause for serious concern — of the sort that sparked the well-known chain of events more than two years ago. He explains that the current unpopularity of Morsi and his organization has led to a willingness by the public to shrug off “the almost total media blackout of pro-Morsi protests and Islamist demonstrations,” up to and including the Republican Guards incident.

Given the extent of current anti-Brotherhood sentiment around the nation, Adel believes it remains too early to tell if incidents such as the removal of his videos and the Al-Shorouk article are the result of state policy or self-censorship, although he’s particularly alarmed at the possibility of the latter. After all the struggles and debate the country has seen over the past two years, sliding into self-censorship would “be terrifying. It would open the door to something dangerous, for everyone. It would set dangerous precedents.”

With the discussion growing and sides being taken, the upcoming period will be as much of a test for citizens as it will for the country’s media institutions. Discussing the incident, independent journalist Ahmed Ragab described ongoing attempts to fit such tragic events into the discourse of either “revolution” or “coup,” or to benefit from them along such lines, as “low.”

“Mourn the dead,” he wrote, “and pray for an investigation into this massacre.”