The massive crackdown on foreign journalists in Egypt is unprecedented. Reporters and photographers are being beaten, detained, harassed, intimidated and even threatened with beheading. I used to work with some of the reporters and camera crews.
They had gathered in Cairo–journalists from countries all over the world–to cover a major international story, which may have resounding effects, not only on the Arab World, but the world at large. Egyptian leaders, namely President Hosni Mubarak, didn’t like the television reports showing peaceful protestors demanding that Mubarak resign. He didn’t like the stories about his brutal dictatorship and the poor conditions suffered by the Egyptian people. Once the government put together a bunch of their paid thugs to lead pro-Mubarak demonstrations, things got real ugly, real fast.
The world press gave its readers, listeners and viewers the ugly: the stories about the physical violence by Egyptians against Egyptians. The video of men riding horses and camels running head long into the “troublemakers” with whips and long knives was a startling sight. It looked like a scene from “Lawrence of Arabia.” The media showed the injured anti-Mubarak protesters with their heads and bodies bloodied. Night scopes on TV cameras caught the fighting after dark with gleaming Molotov cocktails being thrown from rooftops onto the people below, the people demanding a new democratic Egypt.
Mubarak couldn’t stand it. So what do you do when somebody reports things you don’t want to hear? You blame them. You want to kill the messenger and ignore the problems he/she reports. Shakespeare was perhaps the first to write about “killing the messenger” in Henry IV, Part II, and ironically, in Antony and Cleopatra. Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt Cleopatra.
So the words went out from Presidential Palace in Cairo, “Get the journalists.” “Make it impossible for them to do their reporting.” “We don’t want the whole world watching.” “Get rid of foreign interference.”
With violent force Egyptian officials have prevented television stations from using the live cameras situated around the square where pitched battles are continuing. This action taken to insure that the rest of the world could no longer see what is happening. Without media coverage the government is free to mount a reign of terror on those who would dare call for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. People will not get hurt; they will get killed. That’s why the media presence is so critically important to protect human rights.
Yes, media coverage can have profound effects. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt has now touched off anti-government protests in Yemen, Jordan, and Syria. Of course, the people of these other Arab countries were emboldened by what they had seen reported elsewhere.
Journalism is a noble profession. Its practitioners seek the truth so they can inform the public they serve. It can be a dangerous job. Reporters voluntarily went to Egypt, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Bosnia, to the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Many journalists are in jail because some leader didn’t like their reporting and many have been killed in recent years in places most people probably couldn’t even pronounce.
There are some Americans always complaining about the media being to blame for society’s ills. I hope the turmoil in Egypt helps show them the value of a free press. They need to stop trying to kill the messenger and pay heed to the message.