On May 23 and 24, a impossibly bright spotlight will shine on Egypt as elections take place in a highly charged atmosphere. In the run up, demonstrations have taken place, dozens have been killed and hundreds injured as presidential candidates frantically pull out the stops to make sure they are elected.
Members of the media, committed to documenting the milestone towards democracy, have become accustomed to attacks, beatings and torture in the run up; indeed they have faced similar fates for the past 16 months since the first protests of January 25, 2011.
Earlier this month, widespread violations against photographers and journalists near the ministry of defense again left the media community enraged over their treatment by the hands of the military junta in the country, but for those targeted, their job remains important and they still won’t be silenced.
“It is our job to tell the story and we won’t stop,” Abdul Rahman Musharraf, a reporter with al-Watan newspaper, told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. He was at the frontlines of protests on May 4, and was beaten and detained for hours. “We thought they would do worse to us, but we were lucky not to be tortured and beaten badly like our other colleagues.”
A critical and telling moment
It is a critical moment for Egypt’s media which has certainly opened up since the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, but still faces significant censorship and challenges. As much as the world will focus on the election’s process and outcome, media observers use the days to measure and predict how free Egypt’s press is, in terms of its ability to provide coverage without fear or threats.
Egyptian leading feminist and media observer Nawal al-Saadawi reckons there is plenty at stake.
“I have seen in other countries how important the media is to the success of any revolution, and these brave people who were attacked and are still willing to do their job will tell us a lot about the future of Egypt,” she said.
Recently, the number of journalists who have faced intimidation has increased, reigniting concerns that reporting continues to be a dangerous profession for those working to document Egypt’s political story.
Military police held several journalists and took them to the prosecutor to be charged in this month’s clashes.
Ahmed Ramadan, a photographer from al-Badil newspaper, and his colleague Islam Abul Ezz were on the receiving end of violence.
They were attacked by thugs and taken to the police, a common practice where average citizens conduct arrests and detain activists and journalists, delivering them to the military where they are beaten and held without recourse.
Upon being taken to the military, they were then transferred to a military prosecutor, who immediately ordered their detention for two weeks and transfer to the infamous political prison, Tora.
They were released after two days, noticeably bruised and beaten. They were, they say, tortured by military police during their detention.
“I could barely see straight during the time we were detained because I kept getting hit on the head repeatedly,” said Ramadan. “I thought they would just kill us, that was how it was inside. They kept asking why we were taking pictures and we told them of our job, but they screamed at us and kept hitting us.”
Both published images of their beaten bodies. Arms were completely bruised, cuts and blackened bruises all over their backs. For them, it was part of their duty to tell their stories.
“We are photographers and we tell stories through images, so this was important to tell Egyptians of what happened,” Abul Ezz said.
They received medical care for their injuries, which they said military police inflicted without remorse. “They didn’t care about us. To them we were more bodies to hit. Others were beaten even worse.”
'Even hospitals weren't safe'
Others faced reprisals on the streets, where they battled bullets and attacks to depict scenes, many of which have gone viral online.
Even hospitals and makeshift medical centres on the outskirts of the clashes were not off-limits. Human rights worker for Hoqook.com Abdul Rahman Yussif said as he attempted to document the clashes, he was mobbed by a group of armed thugs near the ministry of defense and the al-Demerdash hospital. He sustained a serious knife wound to the ear.
“I tried to get out, but we couldn’t. We were trapped on all sides and the military was arresting anyone coming out,” he recalled. He made it to the hospital for treatment, but didn’t find himself free. “Finally, I got out [of the hospital], but was arrested. This was all at least an hour as I was bleeding. The military police got me and took me to the prosecutor’s office. At least I got released the same day,” he added.
Attacks are often meted out to local journalists, and therefore largely uncovered in international media, compared to the times when foreign reporters face aggression.
One foreign journalist, who asked not to be named due to her organisation asking her to stay away from the frontlines, said that the bravery of her colleagues “is inspiring and I wish more foreign correspondents would have the guts to do their jobs properly.”
She argued that it is “impossible to know and see Egypt and the military without being there, which is why we have such bland reporting on protests in international press.”
'The uphill battle against censorship is steep'
For those Egyptians who remained steadfast in their coverage, despite the near constant reports of journalists and photographers being hit by a bullet, attacked by thugs or detained by the military, their work is more vital than ever. The truth of what happens on the ground would be untenable without their efforts.
“We are doing our job and delivering information to the public,” began Ramadan. “Is this not what a journalist and photographer is supposed to do?”
The uphill battle against censorship is steep. With a final tally of at least 32 journalists and photographers being attacked, detained and tortured at the hands of the military, it is time the perception of how reporting is done changes, and with elections arriving again in the country, these reporters and storytellers are needed more than ever.
Without their efforts, without their courage, without the Ramadans, the Abul Ezzs, the Yussifs and the Musharrafs, we would never know the true nature of the military rule that has taken on a mind of itself.
In December, the military detained Joseph Mayton. Read his account of what happened to him here.