Photographers Beaten, Robbed as Pro-Mubarak Gangs Turn on Press (Update)
Update: This story was first posted February 2, 5:23pm EST. We updated the story after a phone interview with LA Times photographer Michael Robinson Chavez at 5:55 pm.
At least two photographers were beaten and their gear stolen as roughly a thousand supporters of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak clashed with press and demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahir Square, according to photographers who were covering the clashes today. “Other photographers have lost their [memory] cards,” photographer Dominic Nahr, who is on assignment in Cairo for Time, told PDN. Other photographers were punched or struck by flying rocks.
“Anti American sentiment is now strong on the pro Mubarak side,” photographer Ron Haviv of VII Photo tells PDN. Says Nahr, “They blame the journalists, they blame the foreigners , they blame everyone for the situation Egypt is in.”
Michael Robinson Chavez of the Los Angeles Times was set upon by a crowd that tried to take his camera. He was moving in the Square near pro-Mubarak demonstrators and tried to climb a wall for a higher view. People dragged him from the wall and landed punches on his face and back. “They broke the camera strap around my neck,” but he was helped by one of the pro-Mubarak supporters. “He turned me around and walked me out, and told them to back off. He said to me, ‘Get out of here.’ I realized there was no way to cover the clash from the pro-Mubarak side. They were venomous against the press.” He circled around and reentered with other photographers on the anti-Mubarak side. Chavez says the punches were “nothing serious. Other photographers have not been so fortunate.”
Nahr and two colleagues managed to get out of the Square and cross the Nile to a quiet neighborhood. From there they filed stories and tried to call a half dozen other photographers they were keeping track of; Nahr said most were accounted for.
The violence began in the morning, Nahr says, when thousands of pro-Mubarak forces pushed into Tahir Square where the anti-government demonstrators had slept in tents or under blankets last night.
Nahr notes, “The anti-Mubarak side is holding the fort of Tahir Squire. They’re going to fight very hard, they’re not going to give it up very easily. You can’t cover it from the pro-Mubarak side because they’re really vicious and they’re really angry.”
During the clashes, “Hundreds of rocks were flying on both sides,” he says. Pro-Mubarak forces “commandeered a building on the Square. They broke in and went to the top floor because they could throw boulders on the demonstrators.” Nahr says he arrived in Cairo with a vest, “but not a helmet. We thought we might be stopped at the airport in Cairo, so I don’t think many of us brought stuff” for safety while covering conflict. Stores remain closed throughout the city.
Nahr says demonstrators camped in Tahir Square used the banners they had been flying to carry more rocks that they had gathered into the Square.
Tear gas was fired and, at sundown, Molotov cocktails were also thrown. Gunfire was heard. Haviv says, “There has been a lot of gunfire-what I’ve seen and heard has been in the air—tracers, etc. but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been directed gunfire.” (Haviv’s Skype interview with MSNBC can be seen here.) Throughout the day, Chavez says, injured were carried from the Square.
Photographers are tracking news around the city by phoning colleagues or checking Twitter. Both Haviv and Nahr had heard read on Twitter a rumor he shared with fellow photographers, that the hotels near the Square could be targets for pro-Mubarak forces looking for journalists. After night fall, Haviv emailed PDN from one of the hotels overlooking the Square: “The demo is being broken up now so I guess we will see if they come this way.”
An hour and a half later, however, the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were still battling in the Square, though their numbers had dwindled, noted Chavez, shortly after he viewed the Square from Haviv’s balcony. “Their numbers were pretty small out there and they’re focusing all their attention on these other guys; if the press were down there, they could work them over. They wouldn’t have to come to the hotel.”
Chavez, who has taught photo workshops in Egypt, says the young photojournalists he has met are used to being harassed by police and government. “They regularly tell me stories that their cameras are smashed, they’re slapped around by police. It’s kind of routine here.” Asked if he thought that the pro-Mubarak demonstrators included members of the police, Chavez says the anti-Mubarak demonstrators had shown him police IDs. They claimed they had managed to take them when they fought and detained some of their pro-Mubarak attackers. Whether they were police in plainclothes or not, Chavez says, “There are always protests here, and people see photographers getting beaten up on TV, that’s how things are done. They think the press is to blame for Mubarak’s fall, and they’re angry. They take it out on us.”
Photographers in Egypt report the situation continues to change; PDN will provide updates as events warrant them.
PHOTO: © RON HAVIV/VII PHOTO
CAPTION: A wounded anti-government protester is attended to during clashes between pro-government demonstrators and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 2, 2011.