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  10 September 2008
Egyptian Media Coverage of Fatal Power Cut

A fatal power cut in an Egyptian hospital in May shows the increasing impact that new forms of transmitting news have on reporting in the country.

By Sarah Carr

A significant power cut in Cairo on 22 May left the El-Matareyya Teaching Hospital without electricity for two hours as the hospital's own generators failed. A doctor, who calls himself Akroot, used his mobile phone to film extremely distressing videos showing the hospital staff desperately trying to save the lives of babies in incubators in the intensive care unit - using the light from their mobile phones to guide them - while the babies cried in distress and the machines emitted crisis signals.

Shortly after the incident, Akroot uploaded videos of the moments in the intensive care unit on the Internet. The horrible scenes quickly spread over Egypt and led to important coverage by the press. Akroot claimed that four babies died as a direct result of the two-hour power cut. The hospital denied there was any kind of link between the power cut and the deaths of the babies. Furthermore, Akroot claimed the hospital's administration already knew that the control panel governing electricity supply in the hospital was faulty: a 5-minute power cut had occurred in the hospital three weeks earlier.

Tabloid Rose El Youssef seized on the contradictions between the doctors' account of the event and that of hospital officials. Columnist Mohamed Hamdy reported that the electricity company responsible for supplying the hospital did not register any faults in the area on the night of the 22nd - further evidence, he suggests that the power cut was the result of a technical fault within the hospital which its administration negligently ignored.

"An illogical series of accusations exchanged between the parties concerned, each side trying to pin the crime on the others...But in the end four newborn babies who were meant to receive intensive care...died due to negligence and were denied their right to the health care guaranteed by the Constitution to all citizens - even if being treated in a government hospital."

Daily independent Al Masry al Youm evocatively describes the scene its reporters found inside the hospital.

"The hospital hits you from the start: a dirty entrance, suspicious security guards who launch into arguments at the slightest opportunity...There is an entrance for serious cases. We found out afterwards that it collects payments for analyses and X-rays - despite the fact this is a teaching hospital, and services are offered for free. Newly graduated doctors examine patients belonging to society's poorest classes, as is obvious from the marks on their tattered clothes."

According to Al Masry Al Youm, El-Matareyya's doctors secretly refer to it as the "Matareyya Investment Hospital" - a reference to what they regard as the hospital's profits before patients policy. In an interview hospital manager Osama Gamil denied that the electricity cut had killed the babies and told El-Youm that he would "imprison" the journalist who published this claim.

On 6 June newspapers reported that the public prosecution office was launching an investigation into the deaths. State-controlled daily Al Ahram announced that the government was "in mourning" for the four children "who died as a result of the power cut." The article quotes cabinet minister Mofeed Shehab, who explained that the minister of health's [Hatem El-Gabaly] decision to transfer the case to the public prosecution office was not an evasion of responsibility: the minister of health has taken "immediate measures to investigate conditions in the hospital." Al Ahram columnist Samir El-Shahaat ponders if - "regardless of whether the death of the four children in El-Matareyya was caused by negligence or a mere accident" - "our children are under threat" when they enter Egyptian public hospitals.

Tabloid El Osbooa carried a long piece featuring interviews with a El-Matareyya hospital technician responsible for medical equipment, and Mortaga Negm, secretary general of the General Body for Teaching Hospitals and Academies. The technician tells El Osbooa that she took time off in October 2007 because of her fear that she would be held responsible for deaths caused in the event of a prolonged power cut.

Negm meanwhile maintained that two of the deaths were entirely unrelated to the power cut: both deaths, he told El Osbooa, occurred before the power cut. Their bodies were in the intensive care unit because of a Ministry of Health law which forbids the bodies of the deceased to be moved for two hours after their death. Negm claims that no deaths were caused by the power cut: "doctors carried on exerting their utmost efforts until the electricity supply returned. Despite this, the Ministry of Health presented a complaint to the public prosecution office because the Minister is merciless in the face of any transgression or negligence."

Independent daily Al Dustour sees things differently, in an article headlined, "MPs accuse ministry of health and hospital manger of being responsible for death of four children!" A Muslim Brotherhood MP tells a parliamentary session convened to discuss the incident that he had warned both the hospital's administration and the ministry of health several times about the "serious negligence" in the Matareyya Hospital.

Al Masry Al Youm produced documents in which the El-Matareyya hospital's administration acknowledge that electricity supply to the hospital was "unsafe." The article describes an exchange of letters between the hospital and the Arab Contractors company, responsible for overseeing the hospital's electricity station. In the correspondence the hospital demands that the Arab Contractors undertake the basic maintenance necessary to prevent any uncontrollable faults occurring, while Arab Contractors reply by telling the hospital that they are not contractually obliged to do this.

Rose El Youssef meanwhile reported at the start of July that health minister El-Gabaly has promised four new generators El-Matareyya and that the "the crisis will be resolved within two weeks." While the buck was busy being passed by those involved in the incident, opposition daily El Wafd revealed that relatives of the dead children had had no idea how their children died: they had only found out through media reports.