2 February 2011

IFEX members denounce Mubarak's unparallelled onslaught on free expression

A plainclothes policeman runs to attack a foreign journalist during a demonstration in Cairo on 28 January 2011
A plainclothes policeman runs to attack a foreign journalist during a demonstration in Cairo on 28 January 2011
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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It started with Egypt shutting down Twitter, the video-sharing website Bambuser and some independent online newspapers. Then it was most of the country's Internet and cell phone networks. By 30 January, Egypt had shut down the operations of the Arabic satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, blaming it for encouraging the Tunisia-inspired protests across the country that have escalated into a call for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's three decades of rule.

The Egyptian government's attacks on journalists and unprecedented blackout of the nation's Internet and mobile phone services have crushed the rights of free expression, assembly and association and should be reversed immediately, say the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and a growing chorus of IFEX members.

"These measures have had the effect of silencing and suppressing the speech of legitimate protesters and presented significant obstacles to many others, both inside and outside the country, who wish to access or share information about the demonstrations and the human rights abuses that have occurred during this period. Egypt's total censorship of the Internet and mobile communications also stands to encourage other governments in the region and beyond to take similar action," reads an IFEX joint statement led by ARTICLE 19 and signed by more than 35 members to date.

The Egyptian government pulled the plug on the web during a week of escalating public demonstrations, which began on 25 January after an Internet campaign called for a national "Day of Anger" through anti-government protests.

Demonstrators have defied tear gas, water cannons and government-imposed curfews to stage daily, mass protests in many major cities, such as Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailiya. The protests have been largely peaceful, but hundreds of people are reported to have been killed in clashes with police.

According to news reports, protesters want Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power. They say they are fed up after decades of emergency laws, poverty, repression, rigged elections, corruption, high unemployment and rampant abuse by police.

Mubarak's 1 February announcement that he will stand down at the next elections in September did little to quell protesters who were hoping for a more immediate departure. Meanwhile, clashes have broken out between pro- and anti-government demonstrators in Cairo.

Both local and foreign journalists who have tried to cover the protests have been forcibly detained and beaten, report the IFEX members.

Initial reports indicate that Anderson Cooper of CNN, Jerome Boehm of the BBC and Lara Setrakian of ABC News were among those who were attacked by Mubarak supporters on 2 February, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says. Crews working for CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera have complained of attacks by plainclothes police, who smashed their equipment. Six Al Jazeera English journalists were briefly detained on 31 January, and had their equipment and tapes confiscated, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Still other reporters have been prevented from entering Egypt.

Today (2 February), pro-Mubarak supporters tried to attack Dar el Shorouk, a Cairo-based publishing house of the International Press Association (IPA). They were held back by security guards, journalists and neighbours who "rushed to defend the publishing house," says IPA. "The government is using thugs to push back on the concessions made yesterday, and to restore order under the old rule. This is an attack on the human rights of the Egyptian citizens," said Ibrahim El Moallem of Dar el Shorouk.

The managing editor of the online daily Al Masry al-Youm English, Lina Attallah, was covering the protest on 25 January in central Cairo when she ran down a side street to get away from the water cannons police were using on the protesters. She told Human Rights Watch that three security officers in uniform roughed her up and grabbed her phone and BlackBerry. It wasn’t until another journalist told the police that Lina was a journalist that they let her go.

"Guardian" reporter in Cairo, Jack Shenker, was attacked by plainclothes officers while covering the downtown protest on 25 January and thrown in a van with other protesters. He was able to provide a live account of police brutality against the detainees, who managed to escape after overpowering the van's guard. Listen to it here.

Internet connectivity was almost non-existent in Egypt, with more than 90 percent of connections to the wider Internet shut down over five days. Currently Internet services have been partially restored, with social networking sites still largely inaccessible.

Despite being suspended, Al Jazeera correspondents have been reporting round the clock, with live streams in Arabic and English, from Cairo, Suez and Alexandria since the unrest erupted. In response to the regime's persistent attempts at censorship, at least seven Arabic-language television stations throughout the region (Al-Hiwar, Al-Jadeed, Al-Karama, Suheil, NBN, Adan, Al-Aqsa, OTV, Falastin Al-Youm, and Al-Haqiqa) are now carrying Al Jazeera content on the air, reports CPJ. Since 2 February, Al Jazeera is again being carried on Egyptian networks. Meanwhile, state channels aired musical, variety and cooking shows, and underreported the street protests, says CPJ.

According to the "Guardian", the Al Jazeera suspension demonstrated that the "repressive powers of central government are still functioning."

To circumvent the censors, Google and Twitter have teamed up to launch a new service that allows people in Egypt to send Twitter messages with the "#egypt" hashtag by leaving a voicemail on a specific number. Google listed three phone numbers for people to call to use the service. They are: +16504194196; +390662207294; and +97316199855. No Internet connection is required.

If the Internet stays up, Egyptians are encouraged to download free Tor software, which helps activists protect their identity from surveillance and get around blocked sites. Download Tor Project here.

For those outside Egypt who are tech savvy, donate your unused bandwidth and IP address with Tor here.

IFEX will continue to update its website as the story develops.

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