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Record number of IFEX members call for Mubarak to respect free expression as attacks on media continue

Soldiers surround a member of the press after he was attacked by mobs in Cairo on 3 February
Soldiers surround a member of the press after he was attacked by mobs in Cairo on 3 February

REUTERS/Kyodo

A journalist who was shot by a sniper while filming protests in downtown Cairo died last week, becoming the first journalist killed in the recent unrest in Egypt. While police, supporters of President Hosni Mubarak and even the military violently attack eyewitnesses and journalists reporting on the streets, IFEX members are standing with their counterparts in Egypt and a record 55 of them joined other groups in calling on the Egyptian government to respect and protect freedom of expression and the right to information.

Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud, a journalist working for the newspaper "Al-Ta'awun", published by the state-owned Al-Ahram Foundation, died on 4 February from sniper gunshot wounds sustained on 29 January, report the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). He was filming confrontations between security forces and protesters in central Cairo's Qasr al-Aini area, which is adjacent to the protest hub of Tahrir Square.

Journalists and human rights activists around Egypt, both foreign and local, have faced assaults, detentions, and threats from supporters and officials of President Hosni Mubarak, who have continued their efforts to obstruct news coverage of protests demanding the Egyptian leader's ouster. What started as a government strategy of censorship has quickly deteriorated into full blown attacks on journalists, many at the hands of the armed forces. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of those killed in the unrest since 28 January now tops 300.

"The dictators and tyrants in the MENA region are put on notice that all the guns and troops in their arsenals, all the torture chambers in their dungeons, can't turn lies into truths," said Bro Russell from Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) in a solidarity message to IFEX members in Egypt.

The attacks on journalists had "intensified to levels unseen in Egypt's modern history," said CPJ. "We're alarmed at the prospect of these witnesses being sidelined at this crucial moment in Egyptian history." To read more IFEX member messages of support, click here.

Since 30 January, CPJ has documented at least 140 direct attacks on journalists and news facilities, including the detention of Al Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Abdel Fatah Fayed. He has since been released.

While most of the arrests have been short-term, there have been complaints of torture while in custody and some journalists fear returning to work, reports Human Rights Watch.

However, the popular Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer was detained in Cairo on 7 February, reports CPJ, and has still not surfaced. Last year Amer completed a four-year jail sentence on charges of insulting Islam and Mubarak.

Meanwhile, police and army personnel picked up 28 human rights activists in a raid on the noted Hisham Mubarak Law Center, including researchers from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, report ANHRI and Human Rights Watch.

Daniel Williams, the Human Rights Watch researcher, recounted, the raid "exemplifies the persistence of abusive security practices under a military establishment, which claims it wants transition from the past.

"But in this and other cases… the army was clearly in charge of arbitrary and sometimes violent arrests, even if the beatings and torture had been 'outsourced' to other agencies or thugs," he said.

This week, authorities put in place new bureaucratic obstacles for journalists covering the anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square, making it a virtual no-go zone with the military confiscating press cards and instructing reporters to seek new press credentials from the government, report the members.

ANHRI has documented numerous instances suggesting the government has coordinated the activities of pro-Mubarak supporters.

Meanwhile, Egyptian state television has actively tried to foment the unrest by reporting that foreigners, and in particular foreign journalists, are "Israeli spies" that have infiltrated the city and are trying to destabilise Egypt, report ANHRI and CPJ.

Several journalists working for state-owned media have resigned or refused to work after being pressured to sanitise the news. According to CPJ, Shahira Amin, an anchor on the state-owned Nile TV channel, appeared on another channel, saying, "I refuse to be a hypocrite. I feel liberated."

ANHRI says that despite claims made by the current regime, there have been no real media reforms or protection for the media. "Faces changed, but the policies against freedom of expression and the press are still intact, and that is what we will not accept again," said ANHRI.

In the meantime, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) has linked up with other civil society groups and has formed "The Egyptian Committee for Fact Finding and Countering Corruption" to document and determine those responsible for the violations and to take the necessary measures to hold them accountable for their crimes.

IFEX will continue to update its website as the story develops.

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