Journalists testify about events in Mahalla

Journalists, bloggers and activists came together in Cairo on Wednesday to testify about the events in Mahalla where an anti-government strike was suppressed and altogether ignored by the official media.
Many photographers who took pictures of protesters destroying President Mubarak's pictures had their memory cards confiscated by police. R.R.

CAIRO, April 17, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Wednesday's meeting started with a movie produced by blogger Wael Abbas, which focused on the death of a 15-year-old child in Mahalla by three gunshots.

The movie heavily criticized the manner in which last week's events were covered by the official Egyptian media, who presented the citizens of Mahalla as saboteurs, thereby providing an an excuse for the violent police suppression of the April 6 anti-government protest.

Then followed the statements of the wounded, some of whom were wearing eye patches, like Ayman Abdul Aziz and Salah Mohammad Salah, both in their twenties, who were shot by rubber bullets. They testified that the police arrested anyone taking pictures, especially journalists.

The press conference at Cairo's Hisham Mubarak Law Center was organized by the Coordinating Committee for the Trade Union and Worker Rights & Liberties -– Defending Egypt’s Demonstrators Front. Both ordinary citizens and journalists were invited to present testimony concerning the acts of violence witnessed lately in the industrial city of Mahalla. All agreed that some facts were distorted in the official media.

Memory cards confiscated

The conference was covered by Al-Jazeera (Qatar), Dream TV (Egypt, private) and Press TV (Iran) but none of the official Egyptian media were present.

Seven journalists testified to being harassed by the security forces who arrested them, confiscated their cameras and cell phones, and cursed them.

Among those arrested was Amina Abdul Rahman, an editor with al-Badil newspaper, who was detained on Wednesday outside the Mahalla prison, then presented to the court which accused her of practicing journalism without a permission before releasing her.

After her release, a police car was waiting for her. She was again accused of obstructing the justice and rioting. She chose to go on hunger strike. The Journalists’ Syndicate didn't intervene on her behalf saying Abdul Rahman was not a member. 

Nour al-Hoda Zaki of the opposition al-Arabi al-Nasseri newspaper, spoke of the eagerness of Mahalla's residents to get the story out.

"Whenever journalists appeared, whole families would run towards them to give the details about what was happening and to protect them from the police," she said.

However, Zaki refrained from taking pictures of demonstrators destroying President Hosni Mubara's portrait "because I knew that they would confiscate the camera as happened with many colleagues."

Rasha Azb of al-Fajr weekly said the police sometimes insisted on removing film or memory cards from cameras. She added, "They cursed my mother. The citizens were trying to protect the journalists and hide them in the houses. They wanted someone to record what was really happening."

'Just like Gaza'

Her colleague, Ahmad Hamad, was compelled to lie saying he was invited to a friend's wedding. In fact, the minute he stepped of the train with another colleague from al-Wafed daily, the police took them in custody until later that night. "They didn’t even give us water. They insisted on taking our cell phones and the memory cards."

Haytham Jabr of the Spanish EFE news agency, compared what he saw in Mahalla to the Gaza blockade.

"Huge number of security forces, inspecting everyone. The driver of the bus I took from Cairo was scared when he knew one of the passengers was a journalist. He was forced to take another road to the city which almost seemed to be under blockade. It was just like Gaza."

Some journalists even said that police officers lay in hospital beds waiting for photographers to show up so they could pose as victims of mob violence.

Many agreed that – unlike what was reported in the official media – few private properties were attacked while the public establishments were heavily protected by the security forces. However, the next day, forces known for past violent acts in return of money, destroyed schools and other establishments.

Mostapha Basiouni, a journalist at al-Ahrar newspaper and a citizen of Mahalla, said: "I saw some people known for their violent acts during parliamentary elections. Some were freed despite being sentenced."

The conference ended with a statement highlighting the fear of the Egyptian government, not only from the people's wrath but also from the journalists who transmit the truth behind this anger and about the regime's arbitrary methods in dealing with it.

(The Defending Egypt’s Demonstrators Front is constituted by the following organizations: Hisham Mubarak Law Center, al-Nadim Center, al-Hilal Association for Lawyers Freedoms, al-Hilali Association for Freedoms, Foundation for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the Egyptian Association for Participating in the Society, Syndicate and Workers' Services Center, Human Rights Association to Help Prisoners, Arab Center for Independent Judges ans Lawyers, Children of the Earth Foundation, Coordinating Committee for the Trade Union and Worker Rights & Liberties, Ansar al-Adala Association, Freedoms Committee in al-Tajamoua Party, Arab Organization for Penal Reform, Arab Foundation to Support the Civil Community and Human Rights, Committee for Mahalla Lawyers, and the Center for Egyptian Women’s issues.)