EGYPT: Human rights group demands government reopen Al Jazeera bureau
Officials at New York-based Human Rights Watch called Al Jazeera's coverage of opposition protests "invaluable" in a Sunday statement and said the government clearly was attempting to limit public awareness of political unrest.
"Measures to close down the transmission of information to the public violate the basic right to access to information," the statement said.
It was not clear what effect the shutdown would have on Al Jazeera's coverage Sunday. The network continued to post live video feeds from Tahrir Square on its website as well as dispatches from reporters in the streets.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director, said the shutdown is a sign of the times in Egypt but is not likely to limit coverage of the protests.
"Shutting down Al Jazeera is a sign of just how desperate the government has become to cut Egyptians off from news, information and communication," Whitson said. "But like all its other efforts to rein in access to information, this too seems destined to fail, as the world continues to hear and watch Egyptians demanding their freedom."
Earlier this month, Al Jazeera led coverage of a Tunisian uprising that toppled Zine el Abidine ben Ali, even though it was already banned from the North African country.
The Egyptian government has had a tense relationship with the Qatar-based channel since it started in 1996, but Egyptian officials had never tried to shut down its local bureau.
Coverage of the protests varied on other networks.
Egyptian state television focused on the disorder that erupted after police withdrew from the streets on Friday, rather than protests, downplaying the crowd numbers reported by Al Jazeera.
Some local leaders blamed Al Jazeera for overplaying the protests and inciting anti-government violence.
“We should have taken steps before with this channel since it has caused more destruction than Israel for Egypt,” governor of Minya province, Ahmed Diaeddin, ranted on state TV. “I call for the trial of Al Jazeera correspondents as traitors.”
Salah Issa, editor the state-owned weekly al-Qahira, said Islamists with a vendetta against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dominate Al Jazeera.
“Its managers think they are creating a revolution, first in Tunisia, now in Egypt,” he told Reuters.
As'ad AbuKhalil, a political professor at Cal State Stanislaus and visiting professor at UC Berkeley, wrote on his popular "Angry Arab" blog that Egyptian and Saudi media were trying to discredit the protest movement.
“House of Saud's propaganda is on over-drive," he wrote. "They are really trying hard to discredit the protests in Egypt,” he said, citing a headline in Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat “Egypt mutilates itself.”
— Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Photo: Al-Jazeera journalists gather at the pan-Arab television channel's bureau in Cairo on Sunday, January 30. Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP/Getty Images