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UPDATE BELOW. On February 2, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper was one of many victims of violence by Mubarakoids who turned Tahrir Square into a battle zone. Cooper was beaten by thugs, as were other members of his crew. A BBC crew was arrested, blindfolded and taken into custody for several hours before being released. MSNBC’s Richard Engel and his NBC colleague Brian Williams reported throughout the night from a vantage point where they could see, film and comment on the violence that has engulfed what, a day earlier, was a site of celebratory hopefulness. Katie Couric, a “sweetheart” journalist, was filmed being surrounded by a menacing gang of thugs. Reporters on the ground in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have disrupted the earlier narrative being relayed to viewers of American TV news. Until February 2, anyone in the US who wanted to know what was happening in Egypt was streaming Al Jazeera. To be sure, Al Jazeera hasn’t been dethroned—far from it, and there is a growing swell demanding that US cable stations carry the network. But at last the American cable news networks—with the notable and predictable exception of fact-free Fox News—are getting into the game of reporting actual news, rather than relying on a mixed bag of talking heads opining far from the scene.
When the goons of the Mubarak regime, some salaried and others contracted, mounted a campaign of violence and mayhem, journalists were singled out for attack. This mirrored the regime’s internet and cell phone blackouts as a desperate means to stop information from flowing out of the country. The journalists in Cairo are tapped into protester networks, and have conveyed information being tweeted by people they are following, thus amplifying the information of those on the front lines of the protests. And because this information is coming from “trusted journalists,” the folks reporting from New York and Washington have had to adjust their own discourse and rhetoric to validate their colleagues on the ground. America’s greatest source of TV news, independent-media Democracy Now, got “mainstreamed” when its Egyptian-born Senior News Producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous flew back to Cairo on Saturday. His reporting was so invaluable and insightful that he was featured on two MSNBC programs on Monday (The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell).
During the afternoon of February 2, from the start of attacks by men on horseback and camels to the lobbing of molotov cocktails into crowds and hurling blocks of cement from rooftops, the journalists on the ground were making sense of the mayhem. They validated the narrative coming from tweeted and blogged accounts by pro-democracy protesters: the thugs started it, the response was defensive, the will to resist was strong, and the like. By the night of February 2-3, the American TV media was projecting the line that Mubarak was to blame and that the violence was a one-sided “dirty trick” of bald proportions. They also forced their producers and US-based reporters to address the fact that Americans—including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who had believed that “peaceful transition” was what the Egyptian regime had committed to the day before had been had. MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell was scathing in her criticism of Mubarak’s incitement of violence and the US government’s gullibility.
The on-the-ground reporters are unwilling to give voice to the deception that the violence is two-sided or too chaotic to comprehend. They have experienced it, and they know what they saw. They are reporting the truth, a refreshing change in a moment of real suffering and in the context of a raging conflict of global importance. The last lines of Anderson’s reporting in the dawn hours of February 3: “The people have survived the night. That’s something! Everyone stay safe. We’ll be back later today.”
UPDATE: On February 3, Cooper and his crew were attacked again. He tweeted "Situation on ground in #Egypt very tense. Vehicle I was in was attacked. My window smashed. All ok." This assault is part of a brutal and sweeping campaign against journalists and human rights activists. According to Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, “This is a dark day for Egypt and a dark day for journalism. The systematic and sustained attacks documented by CPJ leave no doubt that a government-orchestrated effort to target the media and supress the news is well under way. With this turn of events, Egypt is seeking to create an information vacuum…” Here is a summary of CPJ's roundup of attacks and arrests of journalists: The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, and photographer Linda Davidson were detained. Reporters from the New York Times and the Canadian Globe and Mail were detained and released. CNN-IBN reported that video journalist Rajesh Bharadwajm was "taken away" from Tahrir Square by military forces, and at least four Spanish journalists and several Turkish journalists were attacked, the latter with knives. Dima Salem, a reporter for Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television, was attacked by pro-Mubarak supporters who took her cameraman's equipment and tried to beat her, but witnesses helped them escape. Two Al Jazeera English journalists were attacked by Mubarakoids, and three others were detained. ABC News also compiled a list of attacked journalists. Fox News correspondent Greg Palkot and producer Olaf Wiig were attacked with a Molotov cocktail, then beaten so severely Wednesday that they were hospitalized overnight.
AJE has been explaining that the poor quality of its footage today is due to the fact that equipment was seized, and it is relying on footage sent to them. Many journalists have reported that hotels were raided by people hunting journalists and seizing cameras. Egyptian state TV has been accusing journalists of being “foreign operatives” and casting blame on the media for encouraging the “chaos.” But several journalists for the state TV resigned or refused to work in protest against pressure to report falsehoods. Shahira Amin, an anchor on the state-owned Nile TV channel, said on the air: "I refuse to be a hypocrite. I feel liberated." She resigned.
Despite these efforts to smother and crush journalistic reporting from Egypt, everyone who is still free and working seems committed to bringing the story to those of us watching anxiously from abroad. On the lighter side, American comedian Conan O'Brien quipped last night: "Did you see that people in Cairo punched Anderson Cooper in the head? What I want to know is: How can we get Glenn Beck over there?"
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