Journalists assaulted, detained while covering protests

New York, May 11, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by reports that Egyptian police and security officers assaulted several journalists covering protests today in support of two judges facing dismissal for criticizing last year’s parliamentary elections. Several journalists detained while covering similar protests last month are still being held.

Plainclothes police and security officers beat and detained Abeer al-Askary, a journalist for the independent weekly Al-Dustour, according to two CPJ sources. Al-Askary was set to interview several lawyers and judges at the Bar Association this morning. When she arrived, those sources said, several men grabbed her, took her to an area where security vehicles were parked, and beat her.

The sources said Al-Askary was taken to Sayeda Zeinab police station. Outside the station and in front of witnesses, they said, plainclothes police officers accused Al-Askary of adultery and assaulted her again. Inside the station, the sources said, agents took her purse and mobile phone, copied her numbers and messages, and told her to stop writing. Al-Askary, who was held for three hours, was left with numerous bruises and a swollen eye, the sources said.

In separate incidents, several cameramen were dragged from crowds of protesters, beaten by plainclothes police officers, and their cameras confiscated or damaged, according to four journalists who were at the scene. Among those attacked were Yasir Suleiman, a cameraman for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, and Nasri Yousif, a soundman for the channel, al-Jazeera correspondent Leena Ghadban told CPJ.

Suleiman’s camera was confiscated for several hours and his tape was taken, Ghadban said. Al-Jazeera reported that Suleiman and other journalists were barred from entering the High Court building in Cairo to cover a disciplinary hearing for the two judges.

A source said that Reuters cameraman Ahmad Fahmy’s equipment was confiscated for several hours, while an unidentified stringer for the news agency was beaten and one of his cameras confiscated. A cameraman for the Turkish broadcaster TRT, Hussein Mohssin, suffered an arm injury when police tried to confiscate his camera, Ghadban told CPJ.

On Tuesday, a state security prosecutor extended for 15 days the detention of two newspaper journalists who were first taken into custody on April 27. Saher al Gad of Al-Geel and Ibrahim Sahari of Al-Alam Al-Youm were covering protests on the first day of hearings for the two judges. The journalists were accused of “disturbing public order.”

Three other journalists have been reported detained for 15 days. CPJ is seeking details on those cases.

Demonstrations erupted in April in support of two senior judges, Mahmoud Mekky and Hesham Bastawisi, who are appearing before a disciplinary committee for calling the parliamentary elections fraudulent. The judges are considered leaders of the Judges Club, a professional advocacy group that has been campaigning for judicial independence. Judges are now overseen by the Ministry of Justice.

Last year, CPJ reported that security forces and thugs believed to have been hired by the ruling party National Democratic Party assaulted numerous reporters covering antigovernment protests and parliamentary elections in November and December.

“This thuggery against journalists seeking to cover public events has become frighteningly commonplace,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Egyptian authorities seem intent on sending the message that journalists covering protests are wide open to government assault.”