Violence against journalists has become part of the fast-moving story in Egypt as numerous TV and print media staffers have been detained and roughed up amid the chaos engulfing Cairo.
As the upheaval intensifies, the major broadcast nets are devoting more air time and resources to the Egyptian crisis — which has been running wall-to-wall on the news cablers for the past few days. ABC’s “This Week” anchor Christiane Amanpour scored a coup Thursday by interviewing the nation’s embattled president Hosni Mubarak. On Thursday night, she also co-anchored a special hourlong editon of “Nightline” on the Egyptian crisis. The extended edition forced ABC to delay its plan to trim five minutes out of “Nightline” to allow “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to start at midnight, a move that had been set to begin Thursday, the first night of the February sweep.
Journos who have been covering the protests were caught by surprise during the past two days when the fury of some in the crowds — a volatile mix of pro- and anti-government demonstrators — turned against those who are bringing the story of the Egyptian uprising to the rest of the world. The danger of the situation has prompted several nets to work together on security for their staffers, as they often do in hot spots like Iraq.
Two Fox News employees, correspondent Greg Palkot and videojournalist Olaf Wiig, spent the night at a local hospital after escaping a Molotov cocktail attack Wednesday near Tahrir Square, the center of the 11-day protests. Palkot and Wiig fled only to run into pro-Mubarak forces, who severely beat them. It followed an attack on CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who took about a dozen punches earlier in the day.
The danger continued Thursday, as staffers from ABC, BBC, NPR and other news outlets were roughed up, threatened or had their equipment broken or stolen. An ABC News crew was carjacked on the road from the airport to downtown Cairo, and all of the nets took precautions to minimize danger.
“We’re in defensive mode and safety has become the top priority,” said David Verdi, NBC News’ veep of newsgathering.
Foreign reporters continued to cover the evolving story, which has turned once-friendly protests into cauldrons of danger with the past several days of clashes between pro-Mubarak teams, some on horseback or camels, and the mostly peaceful protesters. The journalists, many of whom were veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Mideast, were taken aback by the sudden turn of events. It’s that unpredictability that is keeping the nets tense. Further protests and marches today meant that the danger probably wasn’t going away anytime soon.
“You can’t even tell where the trouble will come from at any given moment,” said CBS News executive veep Paul Friedman.
At least one network, CNN, took in all that had happened and spent most of the day deciding how to proceed.
“We had one of our teams gathering stories and filing,” said Parisa Khosravi, CNN’s senior veep of newsgathering. “But for the most part, most of our people have been inside and reassessing the situation.”
CBS’ Friedman and CNN’s Khosravi said that there’s been no talk about pulling its crews out due to the danger. Friedman said there’s no bravado but the crews are aware of the danger, adding that it’s also their job to cover the story.
But they’re also taking precautions. The nets have security forces with them, experienced hands in Iraq and the Middle East who work with the journalists to decide whether it’s safe to cover a given story or travel to a location. No one would discuss whether the security forces were armed.
“We’ve done some things to increase security and change some of our arrangements,” Friedman said.
For NBC News, that included abandoning its Cairo bureau — adjacent to Tahrir Square — and switching hotels to one further away from the violence.
“We feel there’s a little more safety” in the new location, Verdi said.
CNN, which also has a large Cairo bureau, extended security help to other networks during the melees, Khosravi said.
“We anticipated some of the events that were brewing from very early on,” she said.
Thursday saw the departure from Cairo of NBC’s Brian Williams and CBS’ Katie Couric, although the nets stressed that neither left because of the increased danger. Williams traveled to Amman, Jordan, where he anchored the “NBC Nightly News.” Couric returned to New York, but Friedman said she may return if the story warrants.
Williams reported from Amman, where King Abdullah II recently fired his cabinet and has seen protests that could threaten to reach the tension of Egypt. So too has Yemen, another U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf. Verdi said the story has moved beyond Egypt.
“It is absolutely a regional issue, and the story could get bigger,” Verdi said.
Friedman said the Egyptian uprising remained a big deal for American audiences.
“It’s the most fascinating story and it will have enormous effects on the United States for some time to come,” he said.