Those responsible for attacks on the press must be held accountable

When the media becomes the target

Photo by Greg Demarque
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Journalists were among the most active in documenting the Lebanese protests, according to our Lebanon Protests open-data platform. This role has put members of the press at risk, with attacks on media spiking in mid-January—the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom identified over 20 violations against media between January 14 – 20, raising the total number of violations to 75 since the protests began on October 17, 2019.

This popular uprising is revolutionary because it exceeded the prevalent ceiling of freedom of expression and broke through the barrier of fear over prosecution—almost as if the streets wanted to destroy the image of politicians because they could not remove them from power.

Criticism has become a daily discourse for protesters. One achievement has been how traditional media has opened up to activists and protestors—criticism of political elites that would have been censored by default prior to the protests now regularly appears on air. This has changed the public discourse, with blame for the ongoing financial crisis and the impoverishment of the country and its people laid firmly at the door of a political elite, accused of selfishness, corruption, and inefficiency.

However, this high ceiling of criticism has come at a price. As the protests continued, the frequency of street violence increased, and the reaction of the security forces has been documented as disproportionate and oppressive. Instead of being protected while covering the protests, journalists have become a target of repression and assault.

January 15 marked a dangerous shift, with previously unseen levels of violence against both protesters and the media. Riot police were filmed as they attacked dozens of journalists and photographers in front of Helou barracks in Beirut that were there to cover protests taking place in solidarity with 59 detainees who were arrested the night before during clashes in Hamra. Journalists, clearly identified as such, were trying to protect their cameras while fighting off illegal attacks on their person. Journalists were not only beaten, some were also arrested, including journalists from Reuters, MTV, Al Jadeed TV, and Executive’s photographer, French national Greg Demarque. All were released the next day.

On January 18, several journalists and photographers were also injured while covering the confrontations between demonstrators and the security forces in Downtown Beirut. The next day, also in Downtown, journalists covering the protests were hit by rubber bullets. Al-Jazeera reporter Ihab Al-Aqdi was shot in the leg, while an Al-Jadeed cameraman, Mohammed al-Samra was shot in the hand and taken to hospital for treatment.

Violations and attacks on media by security forces have not only been extensively documented, but have taken place despite these journalists being clearly identifiable as press. Press have also been attacked by civilians while covering protests in areas or crowds that are hostile either to the presence of media in general or to certain media outlets, such as the attacks against press during clashes on the ring. Some members of the press have been subject to cyber bullying campaigns and doxxing in attempts to intimidate them; notably two female journalists were the targets of bullying campaigns via the use of abusive hashtags and verbal harassment online.

The media are doing their professional duty on the front lines of these protests, it is paramount that they receive the protection necessary to do their job. Following the attacks on journalists outside Helou barracks, then-interior minister Raya el-Hassan apologized and assured that an investigation would take place and those responsible held accountable. This needs to happen—and not behind closed doors. It is not acceptable to condemn attacks against the press while abdicating responsibility. All investigations into violations by security forces must be held transparently and perpetrators held publicly accountable.

Beyond guaranteeing freedom of the press and accountability for those who violate it, there needs to be a broader understanding of how Lebanon has changed. The barrier against freedom of expression that has been torn down by these protests must not be rebuilt. Instead, the state must address the issues surrounding Lebanon’s defamation laws, which criminalize citizens for speaking their minds and have no defense in truth. Freedoms won through these revolts must not be lost, and pressure must be maintained to ensure that Lebanon adopts and protects the highest international standards when it comes to rights to protest and freedom of expression.

Roula Mikhael

Roula Mikhael is the executive director of the Maharat Foundation, an NGO aimed at defending freedom of opinion and expression in Lebanon.

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