Media Independence threatened as 80% Politically Affiliated
VIDEO: Hundreds of Lebanese demonstrate in Beirut against rampant corruption and poor living conditions, with some wearing yellow vests in reference to the protests in France, as anger mounts over political deadlock that has left the country without a government since May pic.twitter.com/OHvbrRc9Hf— AFP news agency (@AFP) December 24, 2018
In December 2018, Lebanon saw a number of anti-government protests prompted by the current political stalemate which has prevented the formation of a government since May 2018. In response, people in Lebanon have mobilised to decry worsening economic and social conditions in the country.
On 23rd December 2018, several hundred people marched through Beirut denouncing the current political deadlock, and calling for an end to corruption, better social services and respect for citizens “basic rights”. Some of the protesters wore yellow vests, adopting the symbol of France’s “yellow vest” anti-government protests. During the protest in Beirut, protesters marched towards the government buildings and spread into the streets around the city. Video reports from the protest shows armed military personnel and armoured tanks being deployed to the area of the protest. Brief clashes between Lebanese security forces and the protesters quickly followed. Authorities claim the clashes were started when some protesters allegedly threw water bottles, burned rubbish and threw rubbish bins at the Lebanese security personnel, and attempted to block roads. Security forces and army personnel responded by beating protesters and assaulting journalists with batons. The use of force was verified through multiple media reports and journalist eyewitness accounts.
The Lebanese army issued a statement from the Army Command, dated 26th December, stating that it respected the freedom of expression and peaceful protest and the “freedom of responsible media” but noted that it “will not be tolerant" with those who "target the image of security forces and stir tumult and chaos in the country”.
'Yellow vest' protest decries Lebanon living conditions https://t.co/M5R1nlONdt— Lebanon observer (@LebanonObserve) December 23, 2018
The protest on 23d December 2018 followed several smaller protests that occurred earlier in December:
- On 16th December 2018, hundreds of people took to the streets in Beirut in an anti-government protest . While it was originally organised by the Communist Party, the protests received support from others frustrated by the country's deepening political and economic crisis.
- Protests broke in several parts of the country on 18th December 2018 (Tripoli, Beirut and in Palestinian camps in Lebanon), sparked by the news about the death of a Palestinian toddler, as he was allegedly denied admission to several hospitals. In the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp near the city of Tripoli, protesters reportedly burned tires outside the office of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, blaming the agency and Lebanese authorities for failing to provide adequate care for the child.
Journalists Covering the Protest Harassed and Beaten
Despite clearly identifying themselves, at least four journalists covering the protest on 23rd December 2018 in Beirut were assaulted by the security forces, including army personnel, deployed to the protest,:
- Military personnel harassed and assaulted Hasan Shaaban, a photographer for the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star and the Reuters. He was attacked by a group of military officers while covering the protest and assaulted supposedly for taking pictures of the army. Video shared on social media by Shaaban documents him shouting "journalist, journalist” to the soldiers accosting him. "The soldiers kicked me to the ground, punched me, and hit me anywhere they could," Shaaban said; his statement is substantiated by pictures and video documentation. While Shaaban believed he was randomly picked, he also claimed that the soldiers purposefully targeted photographers who were documenting attacks on unarmed civilians.
- Richard Sammour, a photographer for the local daily Al-Joumhouria also reported being attacked by soldiers while filming and taking pictures of soldiers assaulting protesters near Hamra Street, according to his account provided to CPJ. Prior to being hit in the head by soldiers, he had been instructed “to step back and stop taking pictures”.
- Security forces also assaulted the broadcast team for Al Jadeed TV, consisting of reporter Rachel Karam and cameraman Zakaria al-Khatib, while they were covering the protest at Hamra Street. Using truncheons, the security forces beat the journalists causing injury to Khatib’s hand. "The first thing they hit was the camera and I was holding a microphone, so they knew we were journalists. They broke the camera and kept beating us," Karam told CPJ.
We are alarmed by the jailing without charge of Syrian journalist Abdel Hafez al-Houlani and call on Lebanese authorities to release him immediately, https://t.co/IxL4SZORJp— Sherif Mansour (@sherifmnsour) November 26, 2018
Report released in December 2018 by the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM), reveals high political affiliation of the media in Lebanon. According to the report, almost 80% of the media outlets were either directly owned by the State, current or former members of parliament or the executive, parliamentary candidates, or by political parties. The MOM is a new joint project by Reporters without Borders and the Lebanese NGO Samir Kassir Foundation. The MOM also found that the media is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful families, as at least 12 big family dynasties involved in the media sector – one of which is the Prime Minster’s Hariri family, who has stakes in all four media sectors (print and online, radio and TV).
In this environment of threatened media independence, violations against journalists, as previously covered by the CIVICUS Monitor, remain a serious concern. For 2018, Samir Kassir Eyes documented 61 different violations against media in Lebanon - including cases of censorship of media, prosecution, harassment, detention and imprisonment of journalists many for their critical reporting.
Journalists continue to be targeted for investigations and arbitrarily arrested in connection to their journalistic work:
- On 21st November 2018, police arrested and detained a Syrian journalist without charge for several days. Abdel Hafez al-Houlani, who covers Syrian refugee affairs in Arsal camps as a correspondent for the Syrian pro-opposition news website Zaman al-Wasl was summoned by the security and intelligence agency, the Lebanese State Security. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and his employer, the Syrian Journalists Association, it is believed that he has been arrested in connection to his reporting on refugee rights. The arrest comes following his article (18 November 2018) claiming that 20 pregnant Syrian refugee women in Arsal had miscarriages due to polluted water. He has been released on bail after 24 days of detention. The Public Prosecution in Baalbek city reportedly accused Al-Houlani of “inciting sectarian strife following his latest report”. The Syrian Journalists Association voiced concerns that the detention of the journalist would intimidate and terrify other journalists. Al-Houlani has been arrested previously in May 2018, reportedly for his media activities, and held for a day without charge in the Defense Ministry prison in Beirut. In a statement, CPJ commented on the case: "Rather than jailing journalists, Lebanese authorities should do everything in their power to guarantee their safety."
- On 10th December 2018 around 10 armed security forces personnel allegedly from the Internal Security Forces raided the office of the independent online website Daraj and arrested Hazem al-Amin, co-founder and editor-in-chief. The raid followed a visit by a member of the security forces. He was interrogated and released after two hours without any charges being brought against him. According to Daraj co-founder Diana Moukalled, Al-Amin was questioned in relation to a newspaper article published few months ago. Moukalled was concerned of the way the arrest "sent the message", saying "I don’t think there is any need to send 10 armed officers to a journalist who is not accused of anything.”
CIVICUS has documented a worrying trend of authorities in Lebanon harassing, interrogating and arbitrarily detaining journalists and human rights defenders solely for their peaceful and legitimate activities in defence of human rights. Given these hostile actions systematically used by state forces against journalists and civil society, many have claimed that there is a deteriorating situation for free speech.