NEW YORK >> In multiple incidents, journalists covering Egypt’s unrest were pummeled, hit with pepper spray, shouted at and threatened by loyalists to President Hosni Mubarak as the scene at anti-government demonstrations suddenly turned ugly.
“For the first time in the last few days, we can feel what dictatorship really means,” said Lara Logan of CBS News, who said she was effectively trapped in an Alexandria hotel.
When a CBS camera crew attempted to take pictures of violence between pro- and anti-government crowds, they were marched back to their hotel at gunpoint, Logan said. The CBS journalists were only allowed to leave without cameras, and were watched wherever they went. Mubarak’s opponents were becoming afraid to talk to journalists, she said.
Several reporters told similar stories of what the Committee to Protect Journalists described as a series of deliberate attacks. The New York-based CPJ called on the Egyptian military to provide protection for reporters.
Veteran international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, now working for ABC News, said she witnessed Mubarak supporters arriving at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in what appeared to be coordinated fashion in the early afternoon and sensed the mood changing.
“The thing about this is you can smell it,” she said. “I just wondered what this was going to bode for the day.”
She soon found out. She was trying to interview a Mubarak supporter when she was surrounded by several young men shouting that “we hate Americans” and “go to hell.”
When it was clear the situation wouldn’t improve, Amanpour and her ABC colleagues got in a car to leave. The car was surrounded by men banging on the sides and windows, and a rock was thrown through the windshield, shattering glass on the occupants. They escaped without injury.
Blaming the press when things are going bad is a “time-honored and sad tradition,” she said.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper said he, a producer and camera operator were set upon by people who began punching them and trying to break their camera. Another CNN reporter, Hala Gorani, said she was shoved against a fence when demonstrators rode in on horses and camels, and feared she was going to get trampled.
“This is incredibly fast-moving,” Cooper said. “I’ve been in mobs before and I’ve been in riots, but I’ve never had it turn so quickly.”
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.
Fox Business Channel’s Ashley Webster reported that security officials burst into a room where he and a camera operator were observing the demonstration from a balcony. They forced the camera inside the room. He called the situation “very unnerving” and said via Twitter that he was trying to lay low.
CBS newsman Mark Strassman said he and a camera operator were attacked as they attempted to get close to the rock-throwing and take pictures. The camera operator, who he would not name, was punched repeatedly and hit in the face with Mace.
“As soon as one started, it was like blood in the water,” he said. The two men were caught up in a crowd they soon learned were anti-Mubarak demonstrators who were trying to whisk them to safety. The demonstrators told them to get away for safety’s sake, and they complied.
“It’s a significant news story but at the same time you have to protect yourself,” he said. “You’re not doing anybody any good if you end up in a hospital or worse.”
Strassman said that he and his colleague were vulnerable because they were clearly identifiable as Westerners. Al-Jazeera, the Arab news network that has been the most consistent target of the Mubarak regime’s wrath, escaped trouble on Wednesday.
Al Jazeera kept its camera crews away from the square and instead relied on reporters of Arab descent who had flip cameras and tried to do their work by blending in with the crowd, said Al Anstey, the network’s managing director.
“It’s a very, very challenging situation,” Anstey said. “But it’s history in the making.”
There were reported assaults on journalists for the BBC, Danish TV2 News and Swiss television. Two Associated Press correspondents were also roughed up.
“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 International Press Institute, 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.”
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 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.
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 held 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, 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.”
Reporter Jean-Francois Lepine of Canada’s CBC all-French RDI network said that he and a cameraman were surrounded by a mob that began hitting them, until they were rescued by the Egyptian army.
“Without them, we probably would have been beaten to death,” he said.