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News coverage curbed as journalists are targeted in Cairo

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Cooper recounts being attacked in Cairo
  • NEW: Vice President Omar Suleiman says the media is partly to blame for the unrest
  • NEW: A Reuters television crew is beaten in Cairo
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemns the targeting of reporters
  • Al Jazeera, The Washington Post and others report detained journalists

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Journalists attempting to cover unprecedented unrest in Egypt reported being beaten, arrested and harassed by security forces and police for a second day Thursday, leading to sharply limited television coverage of the protests.

Various news outlets -- including the BBC, Al-Arabiya, ABC News, the Washington Post, Fox News, Al Jazeera and CNN -- said members of their staffs had been attacked or otherwise targeted. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also reported that staffers were detained.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based advocacy organization, said late Thursday it had recorded 24 detentions, 21 assaults and five instances of equipment having been seized in the past 24 hours. A popular Egyptian blogger was among those who reported being beaten.

"With this turn of events, Egypt is seeking to create an information vacuum that puts it in the company of the world's worst oppressors, countries such as Burma, Iran and Cuba," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

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As access grew more and more limited, news channels curbed their coverage of the crisis, showing file footage of the protests and cutting some of the intensity that characterized their earlier reports. CNN journalists broadcast from secret locations Thursday night because of security concerns.

Bert Sundstrom, a foreign correspondent for Sweden's SVT television, was found in a Cairo hospital, severely beaten, the executive editor of SVT told CNN. Sundstrom had been missing and feared kidnapped.

Fox News reported Thursday that a reporter and cameraman, forced to flee their position after a Molotov cocktail ignited a fire, ran into pro-Mubarak protesters and were so severely beaten they spent the night in a hospital before being released.

A Reuters television crew was beaten in downtown Cairo, the news agency said. The team had been working on a piece about stores and banks being forced to close when the crew was attacked.

ABC News reported that a group of men carjacked and threatened to behead members of one of its crews. A producer, cameraman and two other ABC News employees were surrounded on a busy road between Cairo's airport and the downtown area, ABC reported. They were later released.

Al Jazeera said Thursday that six of its journalists had been detained by Egyptian authorities in the past week, with equipment stolen and destroyed. "It has also faced unprecedented levels (of) interference in its broadcast signal across the Arab world," the network said in a statement.

The Washington Post reported, citing multiple witnesses, that its Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, and photographer Linda Davidson were among two journalists arrested Thursday morning by the Egyptian Interior Ministry.

The Post later said on its blog that Fadel had called to say she and Davidson were released, but the two were separated from Sufian Taha, their translator and a longtime Post employee, and their Egyptian driver, Mansour el-Sayed Mohammed Abo Gouda. The two men were unaccounted for, the Post said.

The New York Times reported Thursday that two of its reporters had been released after being detained overnight in Cairo.

Others said their equipment had been confiscated. And the BBC tweeted Thursday, "Egyptian security seize BBC equipment at Cairo Hilton in attempt to stop us broadcasting."

"Gear taken at hotel for its own security," one photojournalist posted online. "... See if we get it back."

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Speaking on state-run Nile TV Thursday, Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman mentioned the role of the media and, at least in part, blamed journalists for the country's current unrest.

"I actually blame certain friendly nations who have television channels, they are not friendly at all, who have intensified the youth against the nation and the state," he said. "They are actually continuing. They have filled in the minds of the youth with wrongdoings, with allegations, and this is unacceptable."

Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the attacks on journalists in Egypt Thursday, "in the strongest possible terms."

"This is a violation of international norms that guarantee freedom of the press and it is unacceptable in any circumstances," she said.

U.S. State Department officials told CNN earlier that they have information that Egypt's Interior Ministry was behind the journalist detentions, citing reports from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. Department officials were expected to discuss the issue with the Egyptian Embassy in Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Cairo.

Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the attacks and harassment of journalists seem to be part of an organized effort, but it was unclear who was directing it. "I don't think these are random attacks," he told reporters.

"There is a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo and interfere with their reporting," Crowley posted earlier Thursday on Twitter.

A photojournalist for CNN-IBN, CNN's sister network in India, Rajesh Bhardwaj, was detained in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the site of bloody clashes between supporters and opponents of President Hosni Mubarak. He was taken away by the Egyptian Army and later released, but only after his identification card and tapes were destroyed, said Suhasini Haidar, CNN-IBN deputy foreign editor.

Other journalists reported being beaten and harassed by protesters, while some spoke of close calls.

"The threats to journalists on the street were explicit, and increasing. We pulled back accordingly to protect our people," said CNN Executive Vice President Tony Maddox.

CNN's Anderson Cooper tweeted Thursday: "Situation on ground in Egypt very tense. Vehicle I was in attacked. My window smashed. All OK."

The Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini said one of its reporters, Petros Papaconstantinou, was beaten by protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Papaconstantinou was clubbed in the head with a baton and stabbed in the foot, either with a knife or a screwdriver, said Xenia Kounalaki, head of the newspaper's foreign desk. A photographer also sustained minor injuries, Kounalaki said, and both were treated at a Cairo hospital and released.

Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London said she was approached by a gang of men with knives in Imbaba, a poor neighborhood of Cairo. Another group of men pushed her into a store and locked it to protect her, she said.

"Get the journalists out of the way so we can beat up those loudmouths in Tahrir Square!" she said, as a way to describe the thought process of groups attacking reporters. "Tomorrow's going to be hell."

In addition, several human rights groups reported their representatives had been detained.

The Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a human rights law firm, was taken over by military police, as was the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, Oxfam International said in a statement. A total of eight people were detained, including the directors of both centers, the organization said.

Oxfam said several of its staff members were among those detained. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch each said one of their researchers was detained at the law center. They were interrogated before being taken away to an unknown location in Cairo, Human Rights Watch said. All three groups called for the immediate release of their staffers.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks.

"The freedom of speech, whether journalists or demonstrators -- they should be fully guaranteed and protected. That is a ground principle of democracy," he said.

Meanwhile, Shahira Amin, a reporter for Egypt's state-run Nile TV, resigned Thursday.

"I spent the day at Nile TV yesterday," she told CNN. "I was only allowed to air the pro-Mubarak rallies that were going on, as if nothing was happening at Tahrir Square. We weren't allowed to reveal any figures. There was a near total blackout," she said, calling it "hypocritical ... I just don't want to be part of it."

She said she should have resigned "ages ago. ... I was happy to spend the day in Tahrir Square where the people are. ... I am on their side."

"People are too scared to tell the truth," she said. "There is a built-in or inherent feeling that many Egyptian journalists have because of (the threat of) detention and arrest."

She added, "I haven't been intimidated all these years. I have been telling the truth. I managed to get away with it until now. This time around, I just couldn't tell the truth, so I just walked out."

Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president for ABC News, said the network is continuing to assess the security situation in Egypt.

"Obviously today was an even more terrifying day ... Nothing is more important than the safety of our troops in the field," he said, adding "we continue to cover this important story."

CBS News spokesman Jeff Ballabon declined to comment on the specifics of the situation.

"For security reasons, we will not be disclosing our security plans or our personnel's activities, movements or locations," he said.

Journalists were also targeted on Wednesday, with some beaten, bloodied, harassed and detained by men, most of them apparently aligned in some way with Mubarak. In several cases, news personnel were accused of being "foreign spies," seized, whisked away and often assaulted.

CNN's Hala Gorani got caught Wednesday morning in a stampede of demonstrators, some of whom were riding on camels and horses.

"I got slammed against the gates and was threatened by one of the pro-Mubarak protesters who was ... telling me to 'get out, get out!'" Gorani said. "The pro-Mubaraks, whoever they are, whoever sent them, are being threatening toward camera crews, journalists, anybody who looks like they may be onlookers."

"It was pandemonium. There was no control. Suddenly a man would come up to you and punch you in the face," said CNN's Cooper, describing being attacked by pro-Mubarak demonstrators along with two colleagues outside of Tahrir Square.

A BBC correspondent, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, and his crew were "arrested by members of the secret police" on Wednesday after interviewing a presidential adviser, the BBC reported. They were later released, the network said.

The Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news network was among the worst hit, with its office damaged and several of its staff targeted. Among them was correspondent Ahmed Abdullah, who his editor confirmed Wednesday was found bloodied after being severely beaten by his captors. He was transported to a hospital,

Maurice Sarfatti told the Brussels-based Le Soir newspaper, which he writes for along with publications in Switzerland and France, that he "received a stream of blows to the face" from men claiming he backed leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei.

"I am being guarded by two soldiers with Kalashnikovs (rifles) and bayonets," said Sarfatti, according to a translation from Le Soir. "They say I will be taken before the intelligence services. They say I am a spy."

The Committee to Protect Journalists claimed that such accounts were all too commonplace around Cairo.

In a news release, the group detailed about two dozen incidents, accusing men -- most of them described as pro-Mubarak demonstrators, "plainclothes police," uniformed officers and military -- of perpetrating attacks on reporters seen with cameras and notepads.

The group laid the blame for this violence squarely on Mubarak's administration, accusing it of scheming to suppress and stifle news coverage.

"The Egyptian strategy is employing a strategy of eliminating witnesses to their actions," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the committee'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."

CNN's Christine Theodorou, Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Ben Smith contributed to this report.

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