When President Franklin Roosevelt outlined the “four essential human freedoms” seventy years ago, he began where every small-“d” democrat must: “The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.”

From the founding of the American experiment, it has been understood that freedom of expression is the essential building block of democracy. At the individual level, this means freedom of speech. At the collective level, this means freedom of assembly. At the societal level, this means freedom of the press.

Roosevelt recognized, as World War II raged, that Americans would fight and die for freedom not in the abstract but in reality. And at the core of that fight would be a struggle to assure that citizens of all lands would be free not merely to speak but to speak truth to power—and that a free press would be at the ready to hold the powerful to account.

In Egypt this week, forces aligned with President Hosni Mubarak have effectively declared war on freedom of the press.They do so not because of some vague antipathy toward reporters but because of their understanding that a free press holds the powerful account and provides the powerless with the information they need to become their own governors.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): “Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak unleashed an unprecedented and systematic attack on international media [Thursday] as his supporters assaulted reporters in the streets while security forces began obstructing and detaining journalists covering the unrest that threatens to topple his government.”

“This is a dark day for Egypt and a dark day for journalism. The systematic and sustained attacks documented by CPJ leave no doubt that a government-orchestrated effort to target the media and suppress the news is well under way. With this turn of events, Egypt is seeking to create an information vacuum that puts it in the company of the world’s worst oppressors, countries such as Burma, Iran and Cuba,” says CPJ executive director Joel Simon. “We hold President Mubarak personally responsible for this unprecedented action, and call on the Egyptian government to reverse course immediately.”

But the demand is not only on Mubarak and those around him, including his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, who has taken the lead in encouraging attacks on foreign journalists. It is also on the Obama administration, which has yet to make a clear break with an Egyptian regime that continues to collect $1.5 billion annually in US funding—most of it going to security forces.

The point here is not that journalists deserve special protections, nor unique expressions of concern. They do not. The point is that when journalists come under attack, it is not just freedom of expression that is assaulted. When journalism comes under attack, the fundamental underpinning of civil and democratic society are undermined—and the power of the autocrat, the strongman, the thug is extended.

There is no mystery as to what is happening nowin Egypt. This is about “shutting out the lights” so that the world cannot see what a dictator does in the dark to his own people.

“The attacks on journalists, which began last week, have now intensified to levels unseen in Egypt’s modern history,” says Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We are concerned for the safety of our colleagues, and we’re alarmed at the prospect of these witnesses being sidelined at this crucial moment in Egyptian history.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put it more bluntly: “I worry about what it is theyre planning that they don’t want us to see." (Emphasis added.)

Egypt was never a bastion of freedom of the press, let alone democracy. For decades, Egyptian journalists have been censored, jailed and killed by the government. But now, the whole world is watching. And the United States, so frequently compromised in its relations with Egypt, can no longer avoid what has become an accountability moment—not merely to the long-suffering Egyptian people but to America’s sense of itself.

What has transpired in recent days demands that the Obama administration finally make a clean and complete break from a dictatorship—not with a specific dictator but with the regime that surrounds and sustains him—that has declared war on essential human freedoms.

There is still a place for diplomacy.

But there is no place for tepid statements, for maneuvers to shift power from Mubarak to Suleiman, or for continued funding of an outlaw regime.

The attacks on freedom of the press make that clear. How clear? Consider the latest CPJ round-up:

1. The Washington Post told CPJ that the paper’s Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, and Linda Davidson, a photographer, were among a number of journalists detained this morning. Their unidentified driver and translator were also picked up, and the driver was beaten. Fadel and Davidson were freed late today, but the status of the driver and translator was unclear.

2. Corban Costa of Brazilian Radio Nacional and cameraman Gilvan Rocha of TV Brasil were detained, blindfolded, and had their passports and equipment seized, according to Brazilian news accounts. The two were reportedly held overnight without water in a windowless room in a Cairo police station. An officer forced the reporters to sign a statement in Arabic saying they would immediately leave Egypt for Brazil, reports said. “We had to trust what he said, and sign the document,” Corban said. They said they will be sent back to Brazil on Friday.

3. Polish state television TVP said that five journalists working in two crews—Krzysztof Kołosionek and Piotr Bugalski; and Michał Jankowski, Piotr Górecki and Paweł Rolak—were detained in Cairo and that one of their cameras was smashed. Krzysztof Kołosionek and Piotr Bugalski were released, according to the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

4. The New York Times reported today that two of its reporters were released after they were detained overnight in Cairo.

5. Canadian Globe and Mail journalist Sonia Verma tweeted today that she was being taken “into some kind of custody.” She later reported that she was held by the military for three hours.

6. CNN-IBN reported that video journalist Rajesh Bharadwajm was “taken away” from Tahrir Square by military forces. Bharadwajm’s status was not immediately clear.

7. Maurice Sarfatti, who writes under the name Serge Dumont, was arrested twice within the past day, according to a statement from the daily Le Soir. The Belgian journalist, who was freed late today, works for a number of European publications.

8. A German freelance journalist was briefly detained between Alexandria and Cairo, Frank-Dieter Freiling, a senior vice president of ZDF-German Television, told CPJ in an e-mail.

9. Three Romanian TV crews were detained Wednesday and Thursday in Cairo, according to Antena 3 producer Vlad Petreanu, who e-mailed CPJ with details. On Wednesday, Adelin Petrisor, a reporter for the state-owned broadcaster TVR, and an unnamed cameraman were detained by Cairo police, searched, and later released. On Thursday, police detained Realitatea TV reporter Cristian Zarescu and his unidentified cameraman. Authorities confiscated their tapes before releasing them. Also on Thursday, Antena 3 reporter Carmen Avram and cameraman Cristian Tamas, were stopped by police. The men sent a text message late today saying they were being held for questioning.

10. Mubarak supporters stormed Cairo’s Hilton Hotel searching for journalists, Al-Jazeera reported today. Journalists inside the hotel posted a Tumblr entry that said: “About 20 foreign journalists are currently holed up.” No injuries were immediately reported, but the journalists’ status was unclear.

11. Rachel Beth Anderson, a freelance videographer in Cairo, tweeted that “cameras & phones disappearing from journo hotel rooms in the Semiramis hotel! We’re locked inside by staff who says its orders from outside.”

12. Fox News reported that correspondent Greg Palkot and producer Olaf Wiig were hospitalized after being beaten by protesters in Cairo.

13. The Swedish public broadcaster SVT reported that its correspondent in Egypt, Bert Sundström, is recovering from stab wounds to the stomach in a Cairo hospital. STV said it lost touch with Sundström as he was reporting in Tahrir Square and when they finally reached him on his cell phone, a man answered and told the station that he had been “taken by the military.” STV’s Ingrid Thörnqvist toldthe online Aftonbladet: “He is seriously injured, but the condition is stable.”

14. The Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini said its correspondent in Cairo, Petros Papaconstantino, was “briefly hospitalized with a stab wound to the leg” after an attack by Mubarak supporters in Tahrir Square, according to The Associated Press. The reporter wrote on Kathimerini’s site: “I was spotted by Mubarak supporters. They…beat me with batons on the head and stabbed me lightly in the leg. Some soldiers intervened, but Mubarak’s supporters took everything I had on me in front of the soldiers.” AP also reported that an unidentified Greek newspaper photographer was punched in the face.

15. The Associated Press reported that CBS reporter Mark Strassman and a camera operator were attacked while trying to photograph people throwing rocks. Strassman told AP that demonstrators punched and sprayed with Mace his camera operator, whom he did not identify. “As soon as one started, it was like blood in the water,” he said.

16. Dima Salem, a reporter for Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television, was attacked by pro-Mubarak supporters who took her cameraman’s equipment and tried to beat her, the station said. Witnesses helped them escape, Al-Arabiya reported on the air.

17. Two Al Jazeera English journalists were attacked by Mubarak supporters, the Qatar-based satellite station reported on the air. Three other network reporters were detained in Cairo, the station reported. No names were given.

18. Alfred Yaghobzadeh, a French photographer working for SIPA Press agency, was beaten while covering street protests, according to AP, which moved a photo of the journalist being aided by witnesses.

19. The AP reported that men wielding sticks disrupted operations and seized satellite equipment at one of its locations.

20. A BBC producer tweeted that Margaret Evans, a CBC reporter, was forced to hand over recording equipment to military forces in Tahrir Square.

21. Margaret Warner, a senior correspondent for the US-based PBS NewsHour, had her camera confiscated. Warner tweeted today: “PBS NewsHour arrives Cairo. Camera gear inspected & confiscated. 2 hours & we’re still haggling.”

22. At least four Spanish journalists were attacked in Cairo, according to news reports. Joan Roura, a correspondent for TV3, a Catalan public television station, was attacked by men who tried to steal his mobile phone while he was conducting a live broadcast for the 24 hours news channel. Assaults were also reported against Sal Emergui, a correspondent for Catalan radio RAC1; Gemma Saura, a correspondent for the newspaper La Vanguardia; and Mikel Ayestaran, a correspondent for the newspaper Vocento/ABC.

23. Several Turkish journalists were attacked by Mubarak supporters, according to news reports. Cumali Önal of Cihan News Agency and Doğan Ertuğrul of the Turkish Star Daily were attacked and beaten by pro-Mubarak supporters on Wednesday. Both were in stable condition today.

24. Men with knives seized Erol Candabakoğlu, a Turkish Fox TV reporter, along with his unidentified cameraman and driver on Wednesday while they were filming in the Boulaq neighborhood of Cairo, according to news reports. The Turkish news agency Anatolia reported that Egyptian police later freed them.

25. Metin Turan, a reporter for the Turkish state-run TRT channel, was assaulted today and beaten by Mubarak supporters, who seized his camera, money, and cell phone, according to the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman. The reporter escaped and sought refuge at the Turkish Embassy; embassy officials told the paper they would take Turan to the hospital because he suffered from wounds and bruises. Isa Simsek, a photographer for Today’s Zaman, was also assaulted today by a Mubarak supporter, according to news reports.

26.Popular Egyptian blogger Mahmoud (aka “Sandmonkey”) tweeted: “I was ambushed & beaten by the police, my phone confiscated, my car ripped apar& supplies taken.” He said he was briefly detained.

27. Wally Nell, a photographer for the California-based Zuma Press agency, was wounded under the 6th October Bridge at the Corniche on the Nile in downtown Cairo, according to accounts posted by family and friends. Those accounts described Zell as having suffered multiple pellet wounds after being fired upon by police.

28. At least four contributors to Demotix, a UK-based citizen journalism website and photo agency, were also attacked, Turi Munthe, Demotix CEO, told CPJ in an e-mail. The four included Nour El Refai and Mohamed Elmaymony.

29. The British-based communications company Vodafone accused the Egyptian government of hijacking its text-messaging services and sending out text messages supportive of Mubarak, according to news reports.

30. Multiple journalists for state-owned or government-aligned media have resigned or have refused to work after the government put pressure on them to sanitize the news or to not report on violence against demonstrators, several CPJ sources said. Shahira Amin, an anchor on the state-owned Nile TV channel, said on the air: “I refuse to be a hypocrite. I feel liberated.”

Shahira Amin may be liberated. But she is not able to tell the truth. Nor is she able to bear witness to the courageous protests that seek to speak truth to power. Nor, increasingly, are foreign journalists able to communicate that truth to the world.

This is intolerable.

It is an assualt on essential human freedoms, on liberty itself and on the hope for democracy that American presidents should always nurture as boldly as did Franklin Roosevelt.

Barack Obama must now take up the cause. To do anything less is to abandon not only the prospect of democracy in Egypt but the most basic of American ideals.

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