Through last week's escalation of violence followed by the declaration of a state of emergency in Egypt, journalists and media organisations struggled to report the unfolding events as state forces used a series of tactics to block and intimidate journalists. The mass killings in Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda Squares on Wednesday by state forces were widely reported in social media as divergent claims of the scale and nature of the killings were issued by the Muslim Brotherhood and the new government.
Building a picture of the events at the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit in last week was distorted by a series of contested claims in the polarised media, from the unsubstantiated report by state media of a scabies outbreak in Rabaa Al-Adaweya prior to the violent break-up of the sit-in, to the claim by the Muslim Brotherhood that nerve gas had been used on Muslim Brotherhood protesters on Wednesday. Often the conflicting claims have delineated themselves by the media through which they are broadcast, as the voices in public and state media have become increasingly divergent, while the state has in turn focused its efforts on condemning ‘inaccurate’ ‘foreign’ media. The language of ‘terrorists’ by some state media to describe pro-Morsi supporters at the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in, with little to no footage of the hundreds of deaths in the square stands in stark contrast to the reports by human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch that document the excessive use of force against unarmed protesters.
Journalists in Egypt must operate in the midst of these contested claims and fractured narratives as the political landscape becomes increasingly polarised, whilst finding themselves increasingly under threat of intimidation and violence. A report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists Iast week details how both the Morsi administration and the post-June 30th regime have made concerted moves to intimidate journalists and media outlets. The report notes, however, that the intimidation of journalists has become more ‘systematic’ since the coup that ousted Morsi.
The only consistency threading from the Mubarak era to the events of this summer has been that – in one way or another – freedom of the press has been encroached upon. Under the SCAF transitional period following the ousting of Mubarak, freedom of expression organisations made the case that self-censorship was now the predominant barrier to press freedom, as early incidents of harassment encouraged journalists to stop reporting negatively on SCAF’s approach to the 2011 referendum and ‘handling’ of protesters. SCAF’s appointment of a military press censor and raiding of Al Jazeera offices were low points to press freedom during the early transitional period. Under Morsi’s period of rule, freedom of expression ebbed and flowed. Last summer the editor in chief of Al-Doustour newspaper was arrested after the newspaper ran a series of articles on the negative impact of a likely ‘Islamicisation’ of the state under President Morsi, although it was Morsi himself who made much fuss over preventing him from facing charges.
Journalists were targeted during the constitutional crisis and referendum of December 2012 as clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition escalated. (Ironically, a major concern of many journalists during this period was that Morsi’s constitution gravely threatened freedom of expression, an issue which led to press strikes in December 2012). In a sense, the deterioration of the media mirrored the deterioration from post-revolutionary optimism to precarity throughout Morsi’s period in power. The demise of online English-language newspaper Egypt Independent during this period, amidst accusations variously of political pressure and internal bad management, left a significant gap in the landscape of rigorous news coverage as Morsi’s popularity continued to wane.
As noted in the report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, however, since the ousting of Morsi on June 30th, media has become increasingly polarised just as journalists and freedom of expression are increasingly under threat. During the coup, state security blocked access to parts of an enclave of a television studio, as well as shutting down several stations either temporarily or indefinitely.
The weeks since June 30th have seen an escalation of attacks on journalists hand in hand with intimidation of media groups, starting with the chilling death of 26 year old photojournalist Ahmed Samir Assem by a sniper outside the Republic Guard building in Cairo on 8th July. The last week in Egypt was a low-point for the post-revolutionary period, as record numbers of journalists were killed and injured. As security forces moved in on the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in, Egyptian journalist Ahmed Abdel Gawad, who wrote for Al-Akhbar newspaper, was fatally shot in the vicinity, as was 26 year old Habiba Ahmed Abd Haziz, who was on annual leave from her job at UAE’s The Gulf News. The Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, has called for an immediate investigation into the death of Sky News camera man Mick Deane who was shot dead in Cairo last week.
Both media organisations and press freedom organisations began to raise the possibility that journalists were being systematically targeted after a spate of assaults and threats from last Wednesday. Tarek Abbas of Al-Watan newspaper was reportedly shot in the leg and eye, and Al Jazeera camera man Mohammed Zaki was shot in the arm. The Washington Post’s Abigal Hauslohner reported that a police officer threatened to ‘shoot her in the leg’, while Mike Giglio from The Daily Beast reported that he had been arrested and beaten by security forces. Other journalists reporting being detained by security forces include Brazilian journalist Hugo Bachega and British journalist Patrick Kingsley.
Physical intimidation of journalists and attempts to jam the signals of broadcasters operates alongside legal actions to silence journalists – the Bureau Chief of Al Jazeera Arabic, Abdel Fateh Fayed and broadcast engineer Ahmed Hassan have been accused of ‘threatening national security’ and consequently placed under investigation by the new government.
The latest proof that the position of journalists has changed under the new regime came from the State Information Service who issued a statement for ‘foreign correspondents’ late last week. Accusations in the SIS statement include the charge that foreign media is ‘biased’ towards the Muslim Brotherhood and does not shed light on terrorist acts that are perpetrated by the Brotherhood, and ignoring the support that the Muslim Brotherhood is drawing from foreigners, and as such are presenting a ‘distorted’ image of the current situation in Egypt to their audiences. Such a message hints at the significant difference in how the murders in the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in were reported by state media compared to independent, and Muslim Brotherhood-backed, media organisations.
The attempt in the statement to divide between foreign and domestic media is not the only fracture cutting across the media landscape, as the figures of the mass killings last week continue to be contested. But it is the latest in a series of attempts, by a series of Egyptian regimes, to curtail press freedom -- and without freedom of the press, the true scale of the tragedy in Rabaa Al-Adaweya may never be known.