Since Egyptians began crowding into Cairo's Tahrir Square ten days ago, the world has been able to witness historic events as they unfold, but that window into a country in transformation, is being shattered. Journalists covering the uprising in Egypt are under assault. In the last 24 hours, journalists have been attacked in the streets, seen their information confiscated and equipment smashed. Security forces have removed virtually all cameras overlooking Tahrir square, detained reporters, and raided newsrooms.
This violent wave of censorship began with the demonstration and has since evolved into a systematic effort by the Egyptian government to suppress news and information coming out of Egypt. What is frightening about the massive crackdown in Egypt today is that sweeping efforts to suppress the media often lay the groundwork for most brutal kinds of repression, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the 2009 post-election crackdown in Iran. As brutal as the violence has been in Egypt over the last several days, there is also no question that the presence of the international media has acted as something of a restraint. In other words, things could get worse.
Already, some of the live feeds from Tahrir Square have been lost and the ability of international journalists to report in the streets of Cairo and other cities throughout Egypt has been greatly curtailed. While individual citizens may be able to partially fill the gap, the information they tend to provide is fragmented, limited, and reaches a relatively modest audience. The weaving of individual stories into a tapestry that portrays the complexity of the real world is the work of journalists.
Moreover, the flow of electronic updates by citizens is not reliable. The Egyptian government has demonstrated a willingness to essentially pull the plug on the Internet. While Internet service has been restored for the moment, the combination of systematic physical attacks on reporters and an Internet clampdown could plunge Egypt into a complete information blackout.
With no witnesses, those undertaking the violence in Egypt will have a free hand to carry out their brutal campaign without restraint. Standing up for the rights of journalists at this crucial moment may be our last, best hope of stemming an impending bloodbath that could go down in history as the gravest example of political repression. This is the moment for world to speak with one voice, and to insist that President Mubarak and his government end this unprecedented assault on the media.
Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.