PJ Crowley is giving a press conference about Egypt right now, and his first statement concerns the detention and physical attacks on journalists in Cairo and across Egypt. This squares with a report just released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) about the intentional suppression of free information by the Egyptian government.
"The Egyptian government is employing a strategy of eliminating witnesses to their actions," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "The government has resorted to blanket censorship, intimidation, and today a series of deliberate attacks on journalists carried out by pro-government mobs. The situation is frightening not only because our colleagues are suffering abuse but because when the press is kept from reporting, we lose an independent source of crucial information."
Citing attacks on international journalists, including the BBC, CNN, AP, Reuters and many others, the CPJ is calling on the Egyptian military to protect journalists. So far, the military has remained more or less neutral.
Al Jazeera was singled out today in a state-aired interview with Egypt's newly-appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, as being responsible for agitating and supporting "outside agendas". Their signal has been blocked, journalists arrested, equipment taken, and yet they've managed to continue reporting from the ground. Currently, three Al Jazeera journalists have been detained and a fourth is missing.
"Egyptian authorities [are] detaining reporters and gangs of young men [are] roaming the streets looking for anyone with camera equipment," according to our producer.
"Spotters stand outside many hotels, watching balconies with high-powered binoculars. When they see balconies with camera equipment or photographers, they use radios to call in the details.
"Egyptian police sources say that information from those spotters has been used to conduct several raids on journalists' hotel rooms in recent days. And the government has reportedly pressured several hotels not to extend the reservations of foreign journalists."
ABC reporters were carjacked and threatened with beheading.
While ABC News and other press agencies had been taking precautions to avoid volatile situations, the road to the airport had been a secure route until today. One of their two vehicles was carrying cameras and transmission equipment strapped to the roof, indicating they were foreign journalists.
Hartman says it was only through the appeal of Abi-hanna, who is Lebanese and a veteran ABC cameraman, that they were saved from being killed or severely beaten.
“We thought we were goners,” Hartman said later. “We absolutely thought we were doomed.”
Word of their harrowing ordeal came in a Twitter message from Hartman that stated, “Just escaped after being carjacked at a checkpoint and driven to a compound where men surrounded the car and threatened to behead us.”
“The men released us only after our camera man appealed to the generous spirit of the Egyptian people, hugging and kissing an elder,” he added in a subsequent tweet.
If you are a dictator, and you are planning a crackdown on dissidents, the first thing you must do is stop the flow of information in order to conduct brutal operations without the world watching. It would appear that the crackdown on journalists is the first step toward an even more brutal crackdown on Egyptian citizens to come as protesters prepare for another large demonstration and march toward the Presidential palace.
This is the last tweet from CNN's Ben Wedeman available to me as I write this at 11:30 AM PST. I hope he's right.
Here's an update from Tahrir which discusses the attacks on journalists, too.