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Bulletin: Winter/Spring 2011, Volume 16, Number 2

Journalists Face Challenges in Covering Revolution in North Africa, Middle East

International Press Freedom

As popular uprisings unfolded across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, journalists on the ground faced many challenges in covering the story. Threats to newsgathering and reporting usually came from the governments that protesters were seeking to depose, and included restrictions on communications, harassment, assaults, and detention.

The chaotic and violent atmosphere led advocacy group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to say the region posed “enormous challenges” for journalists. On April 16, CPJ said there had been more than 450 attacks on journalists, including eight deaths, amid the unrest in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. On April 12, Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF or Reporters without Borders) reported on its website that governments in the region had made “no concessions to media” and were engaging in “indiscriminate repression.”     

Libya

In Libya, conditions for reporters were especially dangerous because of inconsistent and unpredictable treatment by the government and military. The government initially appeared willing to allow journalists to report freely on the conflict, but detentions and abuse—mostly by the Libyan military—led to international outcry.

The Gadhafi government’s treatment of reporters ranged from ham-handed attempts to spin coverage of the uprising in its favor to sudden crackdowns and abuse. According to a U.S. State Department press release on February 24, senior Libyan government officials told U.S. diplomats that although members of a few television networks—CNN, BBC Arabic, and Al Arabiya—would be allowed into the country to report on the situation there, reporters who had entered the country illegally would be considered al-Qaida collaborators. The Guardian of London reported February 23 that after rebels took over the Northeast region of the country near Benghazi the previous week, some journalists entered the country overland, crossing the border from Egypt. Under Gadhafi, Libya has been mostly closed to foreign media, The Guardian reported, and Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kayem said journalists who had crossed the border were there “illegally and will be considered outlaws.”

On February 26, however, The New York Times reported that the government had lifted its complete ban on foreign journalists, re-opened Internet access after severely restricting it, and stopped confiscating cell phone chips and camera memory cards from those leaving the country. A group of invited journalists were taken on a tour of Tripoli on February 27, the Times reported, in an attempt to show that things were peaceful there and the people supported Gadhafi. While visiting an area known as the Friday market, however, the Times’ David Kirkpatrick reported that signs appeared everywhere of a hasty clean-up after a riot the previous day. “A young man approached the journalists to deliver a passionate plea for unity and accolades to Colonel [Gadhafi], then slipped away in a white van full of police officers,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “Meanwhile, two small boys surreptitiously offered bullet casings that they presented as evidence of force used on protesters the day before.”

Another government-led visit, to the site of a British airstrike against a Ghadafi compound, led to a dispute among journalists about their role in the middle of the conflict. A report posted March 21 on Fox News.com said the journalists were brought to the area “to show them damage from the initial attack and to effectively use them as human shields” against a second attack. The Fox News report said, “British sources confirmed that seven Storm Shadow missiles were ready to be fired from a British aircraft, but the strikes had to be curtailed due to crews from CNN, Reuters and other organizations nearby” leading to “a great deal of consternation by coalition commanders.” But CNN correspondent Nic Robertson rejected the “human shield” claim, as well as the implication that Fox News reporters had opted not to participate in the visit, according to a March 21 story posted on CNN.com. In an interview with CNN host Wolf Blitzer on March 21, Robertson called the report “outrageous and hypocritical” because it left out the fact that “a Fox staffer was among the journalists on the trip,” which Robertson called “hurried.” Robertson added, “I expect lies from the government here. I don’t expect it from other journalists. It’s frankly incredibly disappointing.” An update to the original Fox News story said the network stood by its account, adding that “a security guard hired by Fox News did accompany the group.”

In a televised speech on March 2, Gadhafi criticized the international journalists he invited to Tripoli, according to the Times, which based its report on a translation from Arabic to English carried live on Libyan state television. “Libya doesn’t like foreign correspondents,” Gadhafi said. “They shouldn’t even know about the weather forecasts in Libya, because we are suspicious.”

In an April 10 report, the Times’ Kirkpatrick said that the government had presented so-called evidence of civilian casualties from U.S. and British airstrikes in Tripoli hospitals that was so sloppily staged that even the government escorts leading the tours did not refrain from pointing out that the blood in a hospital bed was fake. In another instance, on April 6, Kirkpatrick reported that 26 journalists were “suddenly ordered, without explanation or pattern, to leave Libya the next day. By the end of the night, many had negotiated individual exemptions. Then at breakfast the next morning, another official announced that the exemptions were no good, a bus was coming to dump the journalists in Tunisia, and it was time to go. But by 11 a.m. it was finally clear that there would be no bus to the border at all. Who in the government pushed for the expulsions and who might have stopped them is impossible to determine.”

CPJ reported that as of April 15, it had documented more than 80 attacks on the press in Libya, including two fatalities, a gunshot injury, 49 detentions, 11 assaults, two attacks on news facilities, and the jamming of broadcast transmissions from Qatar-based television network Al-Jazeera and United States-based Al-Hurra. CPJ also reported that two international journalists had been expelled from Libya.

Several high-profile instances of harassment, detention, and beatings of journalists were reported. On March 9, three BBC journalists were released after being subjected to what they described as 21 hours of torture. According to The New York Times on March 9, reporter Feras Killani, cameraman Goktay Koraltan, and producer Chris Cobb-Smith said they were beaten with fists and rifles, hooded, and subjected to mock executions after being taken captive while trying to reach the scene of a battle in Zawiyah. Cobb-Smith said that at one point near the end of their detention, the three journalists were lined up facing a wall. “A man with a small sub-machine gun was putting it to the nape of everyone’s neck in turn. He pointed the barrel at each of us,” Cobb-Smith said. “When he got to me at the end of the line, he pulled the trigger twice. The shots went past my ear.” According to the journalists’ account of the ordeal at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12695138, they were released shortly thereafter, with an apology for the “mistake by the military.”

The New York Times reported March 21 that Times Beirut bureau chief Anthony Shadid, reporter and videographer Stephen Farrell, and photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario were detained in Ajdabiya on March 15 by forces loyal to Gadhafi. The reporters were trying to escape the city as fighting intensified.

The journalists said their treatment over the six days of their detention ranged from humane to brutal. According to the March 21 Times account, each checkpoint stop along their route toward Tripoli “allow[ed] for a new group of soldiers to land a fresh punch or a rifle butt in [the reporters’] backs.” Addario, especially, was the subject of unwanted attention. “There was a lot of groping,” Addario said. “Every man who came in contact with us basically felt every inch of my body short of what was under my clothes.”

After several days of negotiations between Libyan and American officials, including a demand that an American diplomat come to Tripoli to receive the journalists, the Times reporters were released into the custody of Turkish diplomats and allowed to cross into Tunisia on March 21. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) on April 15, the journalists’ driver, Mohamed Shaglouf, was captured along with the reporters on March 15, but had not been heard from since then.

On April 15, HRW called for the release of nine foreign and six Libyan journalists detained or missing in the country. Among the detained foreign journalists were James Foley, an American correspondent for the online publication Global Post; Manuel Varela, a European Press Agency photographer from Spain; Clare Morgan Gillis, an American freelancer working for The Atlantic, Die Welt, and USA Today; and Anton Hammerl, a London-based South African freelance photographer. HRW said the journalists were detained by government security forces on April 5 in Brega, and were held “incommunicado” in Tripoli since April 8, forbidden to contact their families or receive visiting diplomats. On April 25, CPJ reported that Foley and Varela were allowed to place phone calls to their families on April 23, who they told they were not injured or being mistreated. CPJ also reported that Hammerl and Gillis “appeared in government custody” on April 22 “and are apparently in good health.”

HRW also said April 15 that an American freelancer, Matthew VanDyke, had gone missing near Brega. VanDyke was last seen March 13, HRW reported. According to CPJ, VanDyke arrived in Libya on March 6 via the country’s eastern land border with Egypt, and last spoke to his family on March 12. HRW also reported that at least six Libyan journalists known for being critical of the government had been arrested and their whereabouts, as of April 15, were unknown.

The Associated Press (AP) reported on April 20 that two acclaimed photojournalists died while covering the conflict. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in Misrata, a port city controlled by revolutionaries and besieged by Ghadafi’s troops. Hetherington was co-director of the critically acclaimed Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” as well as an award-winning photographer for Vanity Fair and other publications. Hondros, a winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal, worked for Getty Images. The New York Times reported that the photographers were among a group of journalists covering house-to-house fighting along Tripoli Street in Misrata. Both Hetherington and Hondros died of shrapnel injuries. Two other photographers were also injured. Reports conflicted as to whether it was a rocket-propelled grenade or a mortar that hit the group. No media outlets reported that the journalists were themselves the target of the attack.

CPJ reported that two other journalists have been killed in the Libyan conflict: Mohammed al-Nabbous, founder of the online Libya Al-Hurra TV, shot in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on March 19; and cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber of Al-Jazeera shot near Benghazi on March 13.

Egypt

During the revolt in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak in late January and early February of 2011, the government demonized and attacked the press in a way that appeared to be more organized than in Libya. As the Egyptian demonstrations grew, the government sought to block the transmission of broadcast news and communication via the Internet. Meanwhile, as reporters flooded Cairo to report on the revolution, crackdowns came in the form of intimidation and attacks by security forces, police, and even gangs deployed by the Mubarak regime.

Al-Jazeera was an early target of government attempts to silence media coverage of the massive protests, which centered on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. CPJ reported on January 30, the sixth day of protests, that the government-operated satellite company that carried Al-Jazeera had stopped carrying the signal. The government also ordered the offices of all Al-Jazeera bureaus in Egypt shut down and the accreditation of all of the network’s journalists revoked. On January 31, CPJ reported that six Al-Jazeera reporters were briefly detained in Cairo and their cameras permanently confiscated.

Egyptian officials also essentially shut down the Internet from January 28 to February 4. According to The New York Times on February 15, the government used its control over a central server located in Cairo to cut off almost all Internet traffic into and out of the country on January 28. The Times reported that individual Internet service providers were also ordered to shut down by government decree, which their licensing agreements require. Although some domestic connectivity continued during the five-day blackout, almost all traffic between citizens in the “technologically advanced, densely wired country” and the rest of the world was halted, the Times reported, calling the government response to the quickly growing movement “a dark achievement that many had thought impossible in the age of global connectedness.”

The Mubarak regime also engaged in old-fashioned intimidation, harassment, violence, and detention to limit international news coverage of the revolution. On February 3, the Times reported that as the protests grew, journalists increasingly found themselves to be the targets of “an apparently coordinated campaign … intended to stifle the flow of news that could further undermine the government.”

According to a February 3 story by The Christian Science Monitor, CPJ said it received nearly 100 reports of damage to news organization property or individuals being detained or attacked over the 36 hours between February 1 and February 3. In a post on The Huffington Post on February 3, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon wrote that “the world [should] speak with one voice” to insist that Mubarak end the media crackdown. “What is frightening … is that sweeping efforts to suppress the media often lay the groundwork for most brutal kinds of repression, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the 2009 post-election crackdown in Iran,” Simon wrote. “As brutal as the violence has been in Egypt over the last several days, there is also no question that the presence of the international media has acted as something of a restraint.”

Among the incidents the Times reported February 3 were an ABC News crew that was carjacked and threatened with beheading, a Reuters office in Cairo that was stormed by a “gang of thugs,” and four journalists from The Washington Post that were detained by forces suspected to be from the Interior Ministry.

National Public Radio reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported February 3 that she was surrounded in an otherwise quiet neighborhood in Cairo by an angry crowd who accused her and her colleagues of being Israeli spies or Al-Jazeera reporters. Eventually a military escort arrived, Garcia-Navarro reported, but not before “an Egyptian-American colleague, Ashraf Khalil, was repeatedly punched in the face.”

Garcia-Navarro reported that reporters closer to Tahrir Square were subject to even more harassment and violence. She said the experience of Time magazine’s Andrew Butters was “typical.” Butters said although bands of armed men carried out the attacks, in some parts of the city the security services appeared to be orchestrating them. “I was grabbed by a young guy with a club who hauled me over to an improvised checkpoint,” Butters said. “A few of them punched me and [it] was clear what they were doing [was] coordinating with the police and rounding up all foreigners and they were being coordinated and commanded by an agent from the Interior Ministry who looked straight out of central casting, with leather trench coat and walkie-talkie.” Butters said he was eventually released.

CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper was the subject of one of the most high profile attacks, as he and his crew were “set upon by pro-Mubarak supporters” in an area near the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on February 2 and repeatedly kicked and punched in the head. Cooper recorded the attack on a video camera he was carrying, and it was later broadcast on CNN.

The AP reported February 4 that two Fox News journalists were severely beaten by a mob near Tahrir Square on February 2. Correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Olaf Wiig had retreated to a building, the AP said, but someone threw a firebomb inside the building and the men were attacked as they rushed out, according to Fox Senior Vice President for News Michael Clemente.

Numerous other international news organizations had journalists detained during the height of the protests, the AP reported, including Paris-based all-news television channel France 24, Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, and Polish state television TVP.

Meanwhile, the AP reported that Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini said its Cairo correspondent was briefly hospitalized after being stabbed in the leg in Tahrir Square, and another Greek newspaper photographer was punched in the face. Swedish public broadcaster SVT said one of its reporters was also stabbed. The AP said Kyodo News agency reported that two Japanese freelance photographers were attacked while covering the protests, and one of them slightly injured.

CPJ reported that some government television broadcasters, as well as private stations whose owners were loyal to Mubarak, portrayed foreign journalists as endeavoring to destabilize the country. On February 5, CPJ reported that the networks that supported Mubarak frequently accused Al-Jazeera and other international news organizations of having a “hidden agenda,” of attempting to “incite the people,” while calling local journalists “infidels” for working with international media.

The New York Times reported February 3 that government attempts to suppress coverage “were somewhat effective,” as major international television networks, including the BBC, CNN, and Al-Jazeera were unable to broadcast from in and around Tahrir Square, thanks to being chased off, detained, or forcibly removed from their bases set up in hotels near the square.

According to the AP on February 4, evening news anchors Katie Couric of CBS and Brian Williams of NBC eventually left Egypt in order to broadcast live without interference. Williams’ show moved to Jordan and Couric returned to New York. The AP also reported that Arabic-language satellite channel Al-Arabiya “pleaded on an urgent news scroll for the army to protect its offices and journalists.”

In an incident that did not appear to be politically driven, CBS News reported February 15, that on February 11, the day Mubarak announced his resignation, Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan was separated from her crew amid the largely jubilant crowd, “was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.” Logan returned to the United States the following day, and was released from the hospital on February 16, CBS News reported.

In a February 19 Op-Ed in The New York Times, investigative journalist and foreign correspondent Kim Barker wrote that the Logan incident was not an isolated or even unusual incident for women reporting abroad, but that similar assaults are rarely reported, and should be more widely discussed as part of the professional environment for female reporters overseas. Barker said that CPJ, which keeps the most comprehensive statistics on worldwide journalist attacks and murders, does not catalogue sexual assaults.

On April 13, more than two months after Mubarak stepped down and the Egyptian military took over, CPJ reported that some restrictions on press freedom continued, including a requirement that local print media obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication. CPJ called the rule a “substantial setback for press freedom in Egypt.”    

Bahrain, Syria, Yemen

Similar press restrictions and attacks on members of the media occurred amid popular uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. CPJ reported March 14 that in Bahrain, plainclothes security forces beat a photographer working for the independent daily Al-Wasat as he tried to cover a demonstration in Manama.

On April 12, Karim Fakhrawi, founder and board member of Al-Wasat, died while in police custody, CPJ reported April 15. Bahrain’s official news agency said via Twitter that Fakhrawi died of kidney failure, but photographs published elsewhere online show a body identified as that of Fakhrawi with extensive cuts and bruises, CPJ said. The CPJ report said that the Bahraini government had accused Al-Wasat of “deliberate news fabrication and falsification” in early April, announced plans to file criminal charges against three of the paper’s senior editors, and deported two other senior staffers.

In its March 14 report, CPJ said a list called the “Bahrain list of dishonor,” had circulated online, identifying people as “collaborators aiming to sell their country.” CPJ said that the list’s author was unclear; upon review of it, CPJ “found the names of at least nine critical journalists.”

In Syria, reporters were expelled and others blocked from reporting from the most active sites of unrest. On March 28, CPJ reported that two Reuters reporters were kicked out of the country after a two-day detention for working there without authorization and filming “in an area where filming is not permitted,” according to Syrian authorities. Another Reuters reporter had his press credentials revoked for “false” coverage, CPJ reported. On March 25, security forces blocked journalists from the southern city of Daraa, which CPJ described as “the birthplace of the political unrest now sweeping Syria.” At least one satellite network—private, Dubai-based Orient TV—said its signal had been jammed in Syria after extensively covering protests in Daraa, CPJ reported.

Syrian senior presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban claimed in a March 24 press conference that “the problem is with some media organs who wanted to exaggerate the figures, who wanted to exaggerate what happened,” CPJ reported.  Shaaban said “Syrian state television tells the truth; no one else.”

In Yemen, CPJ expressed concern April 18 for the whereabouts of Ahmad Al-Mohamadi, whom it described as a reporter for the privately owned news channel Suhail, with ties to the opposition party Al-Islah, and a contributor to independent weekly Al-Nass. After being summoned for questioning by Republican Guards on April 16, Al-Mohamadi could not be reached two days later, CPJ reported.

In its April 18 report, CPJ also reported that several journalists for local publications had been beaten while trying to cover demonstrations. Four had their cell phones confiscated and were forced to leave the protests. In another instance, a reporter covering a rally “received an anonymous phone call asking him to stop his coverage and to leave the scene immediately” before he was beaten, CPJ reported. CPJ also reported that a shipment of newspapers had been confiscated by authorities, and its driver beaten, on April 15.

– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor