Kidnapping sows confusion in Egyptian media

The Egyptian authorities on Tuesday issued a gag order on media reports about the kidnapping of eight foreign tourists and eleven Egyptians – only to revoke it a few hours later. It is the third time Egypt issues a gag order on the media in only two months time.
A cameraman films the Cairo headquarters of the tour company that organized the ill-fated trip to the Egyptian desert. © AFP

BEIRUT/CAIRO, September 24, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The tourists and their Egyptian guides were roaming the Gilf El-Gedid area, a region of sandstone plateaus and hidden caves close to the Egyptian-Sudanese border, when it was seized last Friday. The group included five Italians, five Germans and one Romanian as well as eight Egyptian guides.

The kidnapping has made headlines around the world, and already led to a communication mishap when Egypt's Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, told reporters at the United Nations in New York that the travelers and their guides had been "released, all of them safe and sound.''

Later, the official MENA news agency quoted ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki as saying Abul-Gheit's words were "inexact."

According to the latest reports, the tourist group has been located in Jebel Uweinat, 25km inside Sudan near its border with Egypt, where Sudanese have laid siege to the kidnappers' hideout.

A Sudanese official told AFP that the hostages were alive and that negotiations were continuing with the kidnappers, who have reportedly demanded a ransom of up to 15 million dollars.

Sudan has authorised Egypt to use aircraft to "chase the kidnappers of tourists," the Sudan Media Center, which is close to the intelligence services, reported on Wednesday, without elaborating.

Media confusion

The area of the kidnapping is a desert plateau famous for prehistoric cave paintings, including the "Cave of the Swimmers" featured in the 1996 film "The English Patient."

In Egypt, newspaper editors received phone calls on Tuesday morning, informing them that a gag order was in place on articles dealing with the kidnapping.

"I received a phone call from the press office at the Ministry of Information at 1:00 pm on Tuesday. They notified me of the decision to prohibit publishing on the kidnapping case," Yassir al-Zayat, editor-in-chief of Egypt’s daily independent Al-Badil, told the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

"Two hours later I received another call from the same office. This time they told me to disregard the ban and act like it had never been issued," al-Zayat said.

The Ministry’s conflicting announcements on the publishing ban left Egyptian journalists and newspaper editors confused and frustrated.

"Issuing and then revoking this decision shows the lack of transparency present in the public sphere about press freedom. We are in a state of chaos and disorientation," said Ibrahim Mansour, executive director of the opposition newspaper Al-Dustour.

ANHRI responded by referring to the decision as ‘unfair’, a violation of Egyptian law, and an attempt to limit public knowledge in the country.

“It is unjust to deprive the Egyptian journalists of their right to publish. This ban violates a citizens’ right to access of information. It is also not legally valid, because the press office of the Ministry of Information does not possess the authority to issue such decisions,” stated the organization.

Third gag order in two months

The kidnapping is sensitive for Egypt, where tourism is a major foreign exchange earner, bringing in $10.8 billion last year. In 1997, the industry nearly collapsed after six gunmen shot down 57 tourists, a guide and an Egyptian policeman in Luxor, on the Nile River. Since then, tourists traveling outside the Luxor area must move in armed police convoys.

The kidnappers have threatened to kill the 19 hostages if they do not receive $15 million dollars. AFP reports several elderly travelers, some in their 70s, are among the five Italians, five Germans and a Romanian being held in the desert, where daytime temperatures can hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) even in September.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying Germany was in contact with the kidnappers. Germany has not commented on its role beyond saying it has set up a crisis group. Sources said the German wife of the Egyptian tour group leader had been speaking to her husband via satellite telephone.

An Egyptian security official told AFP the kidnappers were "most likely Chadian," shortly after Sudan said they were Egyptian nationals.

Tuesday's short-lived publishing ban is the third time Egypt issues a gag order on the media in only two months time.

On August 11, the Egyptian Prosecutor General banned media coverage about the murder of the Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim in Dubai.

The second gag order was issued to prevent media reports on the indictment of an Egyptian businessman on charges of bribery in early September, reports ANHRI in the same statement.

Seven Egyptian journalists were subjected to interrogation for violating the two gag orders.

(Sources include AFP and Bloomberg.)