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2011-02-08

Detained Al Jazeera Journalist: '[The Military] Viewed So Many of Us as Prisoners of War. Our Hands were Tied Behind Our Back with Cables. Our Eyes were Blindfolded.'

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Ayman Mohyeldin, the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, was detained by Egyptian police and held for seven hours. Inside the jail, Mohyeldin witnessed rampant police abuse. "We saw the military slap detainees, we saw them kick detainees, we saw them punch them," Mohyeldin said. "One of the soldiers that I was observing had with him a small Taser gun." He also talks about how the Mubarak regime has attempted to silence Al Jazeera. Despite its journalists being arrested and threatened, its offices set on fire and its satellite system cut off, Al Jazeera’s news coverage of the popular uprising has been unchallenged by other news outlets and is battling Egypt’s pro-Mubarak TV outlets for delivering truth to Egyptians. “I think Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English have something important to offer. They’re offering the viewers around the world a context that may sometimes be missing from a lot of Western and foreign media,” Mohyeldin says, who was detained by security forces for questioning on Sunday. “More importantly, they’re offering the viewers a view of this country that I think is very hard to get in the absence of less and less media. So, if they were to take Al Jazeera off the air and silence us completely, it would be a great disservice to humanity, and particularly to information.” [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to remain in Cairo now and remain with Al Jazeera English. We’re going to go now to Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who has made it into the studio. We’re also joined in Cairo by Ayman Mohyeldin, the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English. On Sunday, he was arrested and then released after being held for seven hours.

Hi, Sharif.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Hi, Amy. Thank you for having us. Standing with me is Ayman Mohyeldin. He’s the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera. He was detained on Monday for several hours. He’s been here since July.

Ayman, talk about what happened when you tried to enter Tahrir on Monday.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Well, as we have been for every morning throughout these protests, we’ve been making our way into Liberation Square in the morning, in the early hours. And on that particular day, as I was entering, I was actually stopped by one of the military officers who was there, and he asked for my identification. I presented him with my identification, particularly my passport. When he asked me what it is that I do, I told him I was a foreign journalist, and I was coming here. And it seemed to be really enough for him, because he didn’t ask me any other questions. He simply took my belongings and handed me over to military police, which then escorted me to a little holding area, where I was for several hours.

And throughout the course of the day, I was immediately, when I arrived to that holding area, escorted by the military police. We had all of our belongings taken off of us. We were handcuffed, our hands behind our back, and we were blindfolded. And we were essentially asked to sit on the ground on the pavement for about nine hours or so. And throughout the course of the day, we were interrogated a few times by different people. And ultimately, they had told us that they were going to transfer us to military intelligence, though I think had it not been really for the intervention of a lot of the online community and a lot of people who pressed the government for the release of the two journalists that were there, myself and a cameraman, we would not have been released as quickly as we were, in nine hours.

It was a long day, but certainly there have been journalists, including the Al Jazeera Arabic bureau chief, who was detained overnight, and he, too, went through a similar process and was not released for quite some time, actually.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Now, Ayman, we’ve see a crackdown on journalists, and especially on Al Jazeera. I remember on Wednesday when the baltaguia attacked the protesters in Tahrir. One of them asked me if I had seen any Al Jazeera journalists. He drew a finger across his throat. A lot were cursing Al Jazeera. Why has this channel come under particular attack by the Mubarak regime?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Well, I think, you know, when you look at the relationship that the Egyptian government, particularly the Mubarak regime, has had with Al Jazeera, it is definitely one that they have been disappointed with our coverage. I think they felt that our coverage has been, in some ways, inflammatory, and they have accused us of all kinds of incitement, really. Nothing could be really further from the truth in terms of our reporting, because on many of the days that the government was the most upset with us, most of our coverage was essentially just live reporting from either outside our window, showing the world what was happening. We’ve dedicated a lot of resources across the country in places where other reporters weren’t, such as Suez and Alexandria and Mahalla. And we really tried to show the world what was happening really on all levels of Egypt. And I think the Egyptian government, you know, was extremely nervous about that. It wasn’t prepared to handle that.

It shut down our offices. It cut off our uplink facilities. It put pressure on other news providers, other news agencies, to not work with Al Jazeera. Our staff was arrested. We had — as you mentioned, there was a huge deal of public incitement against Al Jazeera on state television. People were looking for us at hotels, threatening us. So there was a very strong campaign by the Egyptian government and elements that are affiliated with the Egyptian government to try to really silence Al Jazeera by any means. And it was really tragic and unfortunate, given what was happening and the importance of trying to show the world what was really happening here on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Ayman, could you talk about how this compares, the enormous pressure that Egypt has put on Al Jazeera throughout Egypt, with the coverage you were doing in Gaza? You were the only journalist who was there in Gaza during the Israeli assault on Gaza, only foreign correspondent.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: That’s right, Amy. Well, you know, it’s slightly different environments. Both had their own elements of danger and risk. You know, when we were reporting in Gaza, we were in the middle of a war, and it was a war that didn’t spare anybody, whether it were journalists or ordinary civilians. So, in that sense, we were caught up like ordinary people there.

Here, the measures that journalists are taking to try to be a little bit more cautious and on the safe side seems to not be enough, because the Egyptian government, at least as far as Al Jazeera is concerned, is really targeting Al Jazeera. I mean, we are officially banned from working here on the ground. Our staff, as I was saying, has been arrested. Our uplink facilities have been cut off. Our equipment has been confiscated. Our permits have been revoked, so too our press passes. And there’s a huge public campaign of incitement against our staff as well as our bureau. Our offices, even after we left them, had been torched. So, there is a much more concentrated effort by the government specifically targeting Al Jazeera, and I think that is a great disservice not only to the Egyptian population, but to viewers really all around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ayman, who is doing this exactly?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Ayman, will you continue to — go ahead, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just asking, who exactly is doing this? Who raided the offices? Who torched the offices?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Well, Amy, that’s a really good question, because, you know, pending an investigation, it’s very hard to know. But the way it works in Egypt is really the official and unofficial channels. So, you know, officially, the government has notified Al Jazeera that it must stop broadcasting, it must do this. It has put pressure on service providers to not cooperate or not work or provide facilities to Al Jazeera. Various elements within the security apparatuses have confiscated our equipment, have arrested our journalists. You know, my example is one, when we were held by the military. That is what happens on an official level.

What happens on an unofficial level is perhaps the more dangerous element, because in situations like this, it’s very difficult to pinpoint what the connection is between those who attacked and those who torched our office and the government, or perhaps even the ruling regime or even sometimes individuals within the ruling regime. What we do know is that people, essentially pro-Mubarak supporters, like we saw those on the streets and that Sharif was just telling you about, they had fliers with them. Everyone saw those. They were fliers that were distributed and handed out, and they were inciting against Al Jazeera. They were using very vulgar language. They came to one of the hotels where we were staying after we were kicked out of our office. They wanted Al Jazeera to be evicted out of that hotel. And I can assure you it would have been very violent. These elements are the unofficial elements that people here in Egypt closely affiliate with the regime because of previous experiences. We’ve seen these tactics before during elections and other seasons, but it was very — you know, in this particular case, it was very alarming that it was so geared and so specific towards Al Jazeera and its staff.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Ayman, considering all these attacks, you have nevertheless continued to report from here. You nevertheless are continuing to go to Tahrir. Will you continue to try and report from the ground despite this and enter Tahrir? Have you been to Tahrir Square since the arrest?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: No, unfortunately, I have not been back into Tahrir since I was arrested. In terms of reporting, we continue to report, and we continue to have staff that goes into Tahrir. We’re very determined on continuing this story. We feel that Al Jazeera is being targeted unfairly and unjustly. And despite that, we have taken great lengths to protect ourselves, to protect our staff. And we’re going to do so, so far as we can physically continue to report on the ground.

I mean, I’m speaking on behalf of myself. I don’t want to leave Egypt. I was told that I could leave Egypt, and I refused to leave Egypt, you know, in the midst of all of this turmoil, in the midst of all this coverage, because I think Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English have something very important to offer. They’re offering the viewers around the world a context that may sometimes be missing from a lot of Western and foreign media. And more importantly, they’re offering the viewers a view of this country that I think is very hard to get in the absence of less and less media. So, if they were to take Al Jazeera off the air and silence us completely, it would be a great disservice to humanity, and particularly to information.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we have been watching, Ayman, Al Jazeera here in New York, Al Jazeera English, though it’s very difficult. It’s hardly broadcast in the United States except in Toledo, Ohio, on a cable station, and Burlington, Vermont, though there are major petition campaigns online to get it on cable stations all over the country. And we see how the anchors of Al Jazeera English will not identify the reporters where you are in Egypt, just say, “That was a reporter,” because they are fearful, as you feel hunted.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: That’s true. You know, one of the problems that we’re facing here really is retribution. I mean, we’re kind of in uncharted waters, so to speak, because when we talk about the challenges that we’re facing — as, again, I was saying, you know, you face the official and the unofficial challenges — you know, if we exposed some of the reporters that are reporting from us on the ground, it would certainly create a bit of a problem for them, either on their way in or out in the country and in the future. And more importantly, the community of journalists here in Egypt that is based here is a small community. It’s not difficult to find out who these people are. And for their own personal safety and security, we sometimes are concerned that there could be acts of violence. You know, we were hearing earlier about the shooting incident. We know that other journalists have been beaten, and we know that other journalists have been detained and intimidated. So, we go to great lengths to try to operate in an environment that is geared very much against us, without compromising our own principles and our own editorial integrity.

And the importance of that is that, yes, we can pull out all of our staff from here tomorrow morning, and we can simply report on what is happening here with the testimonies of eyewitnesses and other people and experts and analysts, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have your journalists on the ground and if you don’t have them seeing firsthand and reporting for you, everything then becomes hearsay. And I think when you’re in that situation, it becomes very dangerous for the viewers to not know who they’re trusting, to not know whether the information is accurate. So it’s important for us to keep a team of professional journalists here on the ground, while keeping as many voices as possible still contributing to the whole discussion and the debate that’s taking place in Egypt.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Ayman, you’ve been here since the beginning of the uprising. You provided a very riveting live account, as January 28th, the Day of Rage, took place. You’ve been going to Tahrir constantly. Where do you see this movement at? What do you see is happening right now?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Well, you know, I think Egypt is at a crossroads, and I think right now it’s a battle of wills. I think what you’re seeing emerge in Egypt is a new dynamic and a new relationship between the state and the people. You know, for such a long time, the government here essentially saw Egyptian citizens as subjects of the state. And for a long time, that’s how Egyptians were dealt with. They were dealt with as simply subjects of the government. The government had unyielding powers, and the relationship was a vertical relationship between the state and the people.

I think what you’re seeing now is an empowerment of people. You know, we always hear this expression that Egypt will never go back to the way it was on January 24th. And that is, Egyptians have been empowered. They have broken the fear factor in terms of how they deal with the state. And now they have legitimate rights and grievances, and they want those to be enshrined in the way the state deals with the people.

The question or not — the question really is whether or not the Egyptian government is going to listen to the Egyptian people, take on these challenges, impose these changes on itself, bring those who, you know, perhaps were involved in wrongdoing for decades to justice, and give people, the Egyptian people, a greater voice in the way they govern their daily lives. And I think this is where we are right now. We are at this crossroads. Who emerges and how this changes is still being played out behind closed doors. So it’s still — by no means has the story died down or the events have quieted.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the New York Times reporters, what they reported when they were arrested, Souad Mekhennet and Nicholas Kulish, saying that while they were detained they heard people being beaten in jail. You wrote, while you were detained, you saw people who seemed to be severely beaten, intimidated, at least one person broke down under pressure, Ayman.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: You know, that’s correct. I think in this situation where I was in, there was at least a little bit of concern that I was a journalist. They knew that I was a journalist, as well as the Palestinian cameraman that was with me. So we were not in the same boat, but we were all in the same holding area, so to speak. And so, I could see the tactics of interrogation. I could see the tactics of trying to control the detainees that they had. Now, it’s not to say that all the detainees that were in the custody of the military had not committed any wrongdoings, but I can assure you that the degree of violence that was used to subdue these people was completely unwarranted and unprofessional, in the sense that I have been in situations all across the Middle East, all across the world, in different forms with different armies, and I’ve seen how they’ve treated detainees, and this one was extremely alarming.

There were people who seemed to have been caught up in the wrong time or at the wrong moment. They had been handed over to the military. So, the military was very keen on at least, you know, due process with them, but in the process of trying to keep these people obedient and subjugated to the control of the military, we saw the military slap detainees, we saw them kick detainees, we saw them punch them. We saw them — one of the soldiers that I was observing had with him a small Taser gun. He was using that to scare and intimidate the detainees into submission. So, it was a very alarming pattern, because it really highlighted a military that wasn’t sure on how to deal with the crisis that it had found itself in. I think it viewed so many of us as prisoners of war. I mean, our hands were tied behind our backs with cables. Our eyes were blindfolded for several hours. So, the conditions were very difficult, to say the least.

And that was much more difficult for the people who were, you know, physically assaulted, because they were essentially trying to plead their innocence. They were simply trying to say to the military, “Look, you know, we didn’t have anything to do with this. We’re not political. We happened to get caught up.” But the military was having none of it. And I think that was very alarming, because that was in one area over the course of nine hours. I can only imagine what is happening in places further in the country away from the center of gravity right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera English is reporting 20 lawyers have delivered a petition to Egypt’s prosecutor general alleging Mubarak family should face charges of stealing state funds. Last week, news agencies reported the family’s wealth at some $70 billion. I wanted to ask you about that and, in this last minute, also the newly released cables from WikiLeaks that revealed that Israeli officials have long hoped that newly appointed Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman would eventually succeed Hosni Mubarak as president, as far back as — this is an August 2008 cable. A U.S. diplomat quoted as saying, “There is no question [that] Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.” And it revealed that Suleiman’s deputies spoke to Israeli military officials several times a day via a, quote, "hotline." Could respond to both issues, Ayman?

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Yes, indeed. In fact, the news about the petition, actually, I was just told about before I joined you guys here on the air, and we reported it. And it is, in so many ways, very unprecedented, that for the first time you’re seeing a lot of legal cases being brought against senior levels of the government. Some of it is actually within the government itself, some elements of the government turning on itself. You know, we’ve heard some of the wealthy businessmen, former ministers, are now under investigation, their assists frozen.

In this particular case, what has made it truly historic is that these 20 or so people who have filed the petition — and it’s important just to emphasize they’re not all lawyers, some of them are political activists, and some them are lawyers, some of them are former government officials — they have signed this petition to the general prosecutor, demanding that he open a case investigating how President Mubarak and his family has managed to accumulate this wealth of nearly $40 to $70 billion U.S., according to the reports that came out of British media. And so, that is why it’s a very interesting development and an unprecedented legal case in Egypt to see the President being dragged in. Whether or not the general prosecutor files the case will still be very interesting.

In terms of Vice President Omar Suleiman, there is no doubt that in the recent years he has become more of a public figure. More and more people knew that he had become, if you will, a favorite of both the West, including the European and American countries, as well as Israel, because he was an individual that was very close to President Hosni Mubarak. He was seen very much in line with those same policies that the President himself pursued, in terms of stability and a very close allegiance and relationship with the United States. And I think that is why many people, many Egyptians, are very concerned, very alarmed, that what is happening right now is simply a change in the names and the faces of this government but not a fundamental change in the way this government does business. And that is what’s more important. I think ordinary protesters that are out in Tahrir Square every day are not so much concerned about who are the names that are taking these government positions. They want to see a fundamental change enshrined in the way Egypt does business from now on. And if that’s the case, if Egypt does change, the new leaders of this country will emerge. These old people, these old faces that they say, are just more of the same continued policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ayman Mohyeldin, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English. Thank you for being there, for reporting and for your bravery. He was arrested on Sunday for seven hours, detained, but as with many of his colleagues, and not only at Al Jazeera, being hunted, feeling under siege very much as they try to be the eyes and ears of — as they try to be the eyes and ears of the world watching what’s happening right now in Egypt.

Just this report: as we were speaking with Ayman, we got this report that a thousand people, protesters, are at the Egyptian parliament and Ministry of Interior. The latest news now on the figures of casualties, Human Rights Watch is reporting 297 people have died over the past two weeks since the pro-democracy uprising began.

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