Egyptians find a media scapegoat as unrest spreads: By stifling reports of violence the authorities hope to revive tourism, Robert Fisk writes from Cairo

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The Independent Online
IN A HAM-FISTED - some might say desperate - attempt to muzzle the foreign press corps in Cairo, the Egyptian government has initiated a campaign of harassment against correspondents for their reporting of the country's growing fundamentalist violence.

Officers from the Ministry of the Interior have summoned several foreign correspondents to their headquarters to account for their 'lies', while a virulent and sometimes libellous series of articles in the pro-government Cairo press against British, French and American journalists has been followed by quasi-legal government threats to fine news agencies if they do not restrict their coverage of the Islamist insurrection in Egypt.

The most recent news organisation to suffer the fury of the Interior Ministry has been Agence France- Presse, which was accused of fabricating reports of fundamentalist violence and of being 'anti-Muslim' and 'anti-Egyptian' after filing two dispatches about violence in southern Egypt and the Nile Delta. Last week an American correspondent working for an Atlanta newspaper received a visit from Interior Ministry officers at his Aswan hotel room at one in the morning while visiting southern Egypt. Ministry of Information officials have since told correspondents that they must in future seek permission to visit Assiut, Beni Suef and several slum areas of Cairo where policemen and fundamentalists have been killed in assassinations and gun battles.

Foreign reporters have also now been forbidden from attending the hearings of the Egyptian military courts in which fundamentalists of el-Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) are tried - and often sentenced to death - for attacks on the government. Defendants at these trials have almost invariably complained of torture at the hands of the police. And yet another restriction has been mooted by the security authorities here: foreign correspondents must in future refer to those who violently oppose the government only as 'terrorists'.

David Daure, the Agence France- Presse bureau chief, who has persuaded the largely impotent Foreign Press Association to take up his agency's case, has noticed one of the campaign's unhappy parallels. 'This way of attacking the foreign press is something that was used in the Soviet Union,' he says. I don't think it's good for President Mubarak to use this system. He doesn't know what is going on. This way of harassing people in the media is very dangerous, because it could generate xenophobia against journalists.'

The genesis of the government's attacks is not hard to find. After el- Gamaat's repeated threats against foreign tourists and the killing of six foreigners - along with attacks on cruise ships and trains - Egypt's tourist industry has virtually collapsed, losing the country perhaps a dollars 1bn ( pounds 680m) in income. Claiming that the violence is the work of isolated 'terrorists' who have already been virtually annihilated by the security forces - an assertion that is clearly untrue - the Egyptian authorities want to revive foreign tourism by smothering further reports of violence.

If foreign journalists do not observe 'precision and objectivity' in their reports out of Cairo, the Interior Ministry has warned, it will 'take legal measures against such reports, which are no less dangerous - perhaps they are more dangerous - than the criminal acts carried out by the terrorists which are aimed at harming Egypt'. Foreign news agencies and television networks - several of which opened offices and bought equipment in Egypt during the Lebanese civil war - are particularly affected; they must now balance their desire to report the news against their need to maintain their investments.

'Every time the Egyptian press attacks us,' one news agency reporter told the Independent, 'our managers come in here with dollars in their eyes, worrying about what we're going to report. We're being extremely cautious, double and triple checking. But we can't be perfect all the time.'

The government's campaign of harassment reflects little credit on anyone. An Agence France-Presse report of a bomb in the town of Tanta appears to have been inaccurate; the explosion may have been caused by an old artillery shell.

Yet in some ways the foreign press in Cairo has been remarkably meek. Despite courageous work by individual reporters based here, foreign news agencies - including Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press - have not chosen to investigate the widespread and compelling evidence of systematic torture by the security forces. 'Because our profile is so high,' one Western agency reporter said, 'it would be provocative for us to go out and investigate this ourselves. So to cover this, we rely on the reports of torture by Amnesty and Middle East Watch.' There are other ways of putting pressure on the press. Egyptian reporters working for international news organisations are being called in to the ministry to explain the 'mistakes' of their employers to three officers: Captain Mohamed Tamer, Colonel Abdul-Muneim Moawad and Major General Abdul-Raouf Mnawi, an adviser to Hussein al-Alfi, the Interior Minister.

Another Egyptian working for an American news organisation has discovered that President Mubarak's personal security officers have been invalidating his press passes ever since he visited Assiut 'without permission'. In one meeting at the Interior Ministry offices at Lazougli Street - the same complex in which hundreds of prisoners have reportedly being tortured - a foreign reporter was astonished to find that ministry officials allowed four Egyptian journalists to attend their discussions.

(Photograph omitted)