Supporters of President Hosni Mubarak unleashed their fury on the media Wednesday, beating and threatening journalists who were covering fierce battles between pro- and anti-government crowds in central Cairo.
Four Israeli journalists and a Belgian reporter were also detained, according to reports.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused the Egyptian government of orchestrating attacks on reporters in an attempt to deprive the world of independent information about the unrest. The government denied it.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper and two Associated Press correspondents were among those roughed up during a chaotic day in which Mubarak backers turned out in force for the first time in nine days of protests against his autocratic rule.
A journalist for Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television suffered a concussion, said media watchdog International Press Institute, citing Randa Abul-Azm, the station’s bureau chief in Cairo.
The attacks appeared to reflect a pro-government view that many media outlets are sympathetic to protesters who want Mubarak to quit now rather than complete his term. On Tuesday night, Mubarak pledged not to run in elections later this year, and the army urged people to cease demonstrating.
In Wednesday’s fighting, security forces did not intervene as thousands of people hurled stones and firebombs at each other for hours in and around the capital’s Tahrir Square.
The Egyptian government has used “blanket censorship, intimidation, and today a series of deliberate attacks on journalists carried out by pro-government mobs,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We strongly condemn these attacks and urge all parties to refrain from violence against journalists, local or foreign, who are simply trying to cover these demonstrations and clashes for the benefit of the public,” Anthony Mills, press freedom manager for Vienna-based IPI, said in a statement.
“We are particularly concerned at suggestions that the attacks may have been linked to the security services,” he said.
Government spokesman Magdy Rady said the assertion of state involvement in street clashes and attacks on reporters was a “fiction,” and that the government welcomed objective coverage.
“It would help our purpose to have it as transparent as possible. We need your help,” Rady said in an interview with The Associated Press. However, he said some media were not impartial and were “taking sides against Egypt.”
Also Wednesday, Israel Radio said four Israeli journalists in Egypt were arrested for violating the nightly curfew and working on tourist visas.
Israel Radio said three work for Israel’s Channel 2 TV and the fourth for an Arabic-language portal based in the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not confirm the report, but released a statement calling on Israeli reporters in Egypt to “remain alert, act responsibly and follow the rules.”
Egyptian state television reported Tuesday night that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets in what appeared to be an effort to depict the protest movement as foreign-fueled. The government restored Internet service on Wednesday after having shut it down since last week, apparently to thwart protesters from organizing.
The website of Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper said Belgian reporter Serge Dumont, whose real name is Maurice Sarfatti, was beaten Wednesday while covering a pro-Mubarak demonstration and taken away by unidentified people dressed as civilians. The newspaper said Sarfatti had been accused of spying.
The paper said Sarfatti had been able to call the paper to tell them he had been taken to a military post.
“They are saying I’m going to be taken to see security services. They accuse me of being a spy,” the paper’s website quoted him as saying.
Le Soir said Sarfatti uses the byline Serge Dumont and that he also works for Switzerland’s Le Temps and France’s La Voix du Nord newspapers.
A reporter for Turkey’s Fox TV, his Egyptian cameraman and their driver were abducted by men with knives while filming protests Wednesday, but Egyptian police later rescued them, said Anatolia, a Turkish news agency.
There was no information on why the crew was kidnapped or circumstances surrounding their release.
A correspondent and a cameraman working for Russia’s Zvezda television channel were detained by men in plainclothes and held overnight Tuesday before being released Wednesday, Anastasiya Popova of Vesti state television and radio said on air from Cairo.
“All of their equipment, cameras and all cassettes, were taken from them, they were taken to a house and blindfolded,” Popova said. They were questioned, she said, “but today they took them to the outskirts of town and let them go without any explanation.”