(Cairo) - Dozens of eye injuries from rubber bullets have marked the crackdown on protesters in Tahrir Square. “Eye-hunters,” Egyptians are calling the armed police who aim at head-level.
Besides the physical damage, there’s a sinister symbolism about it. Egypt’s military rulers have been on a persistent campaign of trying to blind the public through clampdowns on the media.
The toll on reporters during the Tahrir unrest has been notable. The Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based press freedom advocate, reported that 17 journalists were beaten or wounded by rubber bullets between November 19 and 21, the first three days of the latest Tahrir demonstrations.
In Cairo, Ahmed Abdel Fattah, who makes videos for the website of Al Masry Al Youm, an independent newspaper, was hit in the right eye by a rubber bullet, possibly disastrous given his line of work.
“I saw the officer who shot me,” Abdel Fattah said. “He was aiming right for me. I think it was because I was carrying my camera.” Five Masry Al Youm journalists have been injured in and around Tahrir. Abdel Fattah faces repair surgery on his eye.
There was shock at the way police and their plain-clothes allies beat and sexually abused two women journalists -- the French television reporter Caroline Sinz and an Egyptian-American journalist, Mona Eltahawy -- who were covering the protests at Tahrir Square on November 24.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled since the February 11 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, has increasingly targeted the media.
On April 11, a military court sentenced a blogger, Mikael Nabil, to three years in prison for “insulting the military establishment” and “spreading false information.” In the ensuing months, military prosecutors questioned at least nine activists and journalists on charges of criminal defamation after they publicly criticized the SCAF or alleged abuses by the army.
On June 19, military prosecutors called in Rasha Azab, a reporter, and Adel Hammouda, an editor, for questioning about an article by Azab concerning alleged military abuses. In September, plain-clothes agents stormed the offices of Jazeera Live Egypt and shut them down; Live Egypt now broadcasts from Qatar, headquarters of the mother company Al Jazeera.
Media suppression intensified on October 9, when security forces violently broke up a march of mostly Coptic Christians on the Maspero state television building, killing 25 protesters and onlookers. As part of the operation, soldiers and police raided 25TV, an independent satellite channel, and shut it for three days because it was broadcasting live footage of the violence. Security forces also raided the US-funded al-Hurra channel while it was broadcasting the Maspero events live.
Reporting on protests carries the same grave risks as demonstrating itself. Wael Mikhael, a cameraman for the Coptic television broadcaster Al-Tareeq, died of a bullet to the head as he filmed the army and police assaulting the October 9 protesters.
Military prosecutors accused a blogger, Alaa Abdel Fattah, of inciting violence at the Maspero confrontation and stealing a military weapon.
He was one of a group of activists who helped organize autopsies by forensic medical doctors on the Maspero victims. Three days later, he blogged about it. He said the dead were, “Fighting the entire Mubarak regime,” effectively linking the army to typical Mubarak-era abuses. Summoned on October 31, he remains in jail under a third renewable 15-day detention order.
The idea that some critical commentary, especially about military abuses, is off limits as Egypt enters its long parliamentary election season is inconsistent with the SCAF’s repeated pledges to shepherd the country to democracy.
There are other worrying signs of creeping restrictions on the media. The Ministry of Information, a Mubarak-era holdover that directs state-run television and radio, announced on September 12 that it would stop approving new licenses for private satellite TV stations. During Maspero, government -owned media called on “honorable citizens” to “defend the military against attack,” basically inciting vigilante attacks against the Coptic protesters.
In September, authorities expanded the emergency law to include “intentionally spreading false information.” This allows detention without charge of activists, election monitors or journalists who publish information the authorities consider to be “false,” including criticism of their management of the elections.
Then there’s the tried-and-true means of stifling the press: whack the reporters. Jail them. Beat them. And what better opportunity than during protests that demanded the ultimate taboo -- that the generals should immediately transfer authority, including control of the military, to a civilian government?
Most of the 17 journalists injured between November 19 and 21 were among the protesters. But some were physically among the security forces. In Alexandria, I spoke to Mohammed Said Shehata, a photographer for two Muslim Brotherhood news outlets. The Brotherhood opposed the demonstrations in Tahrir and elsewhere. Police gave him permission to operate behind their lines during protests at Alexandria’s Police Directorate headquarters.
He told me that he was cautious anyway. “I thought too much picture-taking of police brutality might get me in trouble,” he recalled. But when he saw a plain-clothes mob attack a young boy, he started snapping photos, rapid fire.
“They noticed the flash and turned on me,” he said. “They hit me with sticks. They punched me, took my camera. They took my wallet.” When they dragged him into the police station, an officer kicked him in the groin and police took turns hitting him with rubber batons. They broke his arm, bruised his head and legs. His left eye is bloodshot.
“Since they took my wallet, I can’t even vote,” he said. “This is some democracy.”
“Eye-hunting” seems a specialty of the Central Security Forces carrying out the SCAF-ordered crackdown. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent rights monitor, Cairo’s Kasr el-Aini Hospital treated60 cases of eye injuries between November 19 and 27. Doctors told Human Rights Watch that all the injured treated there on Nov. 19, the first day of anti-SCAF demonstrations, were shot in the chest, neck, or face with rubber bullets. A video from the early days of these latest demonstrations shows a police officer firing at a crowd down a side street and then being congratulated by a colleague: “You got him in the eye, well done.”
Abdel Fattah, the Al Masry Al Youm videographer, says he’s determined to keep working: “We are eyes for all of Egypt. We can’t let them blind the whole country.”
Daniel Williams is a Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch