Beirut gangs up on the press

There is much that divides the supporters of the opposition and the government in Lebanon, but on Wednesday they all seemed to agree on one thing: journalists had to be stopped from doing their jobs at all costs.
Lebanon 07-05-08 wounded Manar TV cameraman © Marwan Tahtah
Said Beyrouti, an Al-Manar TV reporter, in confrontation with Lebanese army soldiers. © Marwan Tahtah

BEIRUT, May 7, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lebanon has some of the most battle-hardened journalists in the world; they have to be in a country where civic strife or all-out war is always around the corner. So it is hardly the first time that journalists are hindered in their work on the streets of Beirut.

What was surprising during the street violence on Wednesday was the sheer amount of attacks on journalists, going from cursing, confiscating cameras, ripping up notebooks, pushing and shoving to grievous bodily harm.

Nader Fawz, a journalist with al-Akhbar newspaper, said his problems started as soon as he left his house in the morning. He needed to get a bullet-proof vest from his office but there were no cabs in sight due to the general strike called by the opposition to demand higher wages.

So he walked. But his real problems started once he had his vest and started walking around the streets of Beirut.

Fawz described the difficulty in moving around areas controlled by government supporters for fear of being asked which newspaper he worked for. (Al-Akhbar is considered a pro-opposition newspaper.)

Attacked by the mob

He walked for two hours until he reached a place where opposition and government supporters were facing off. Immediately, one of the army officers standing in between the two camps ordered him to leave.

On Corniche Mazraa, a traditional flashpoint between Sunni and Shia, the army ignored the street fighting and instead went after the journalists, forbidding them from taking pictures or to move from one place to another. Some frustrated journalists even took off their bullet-proof vests and joined the rioters just to get away from the soldiers.

Later on, everything changed. The youngsters retreated and armed men were deployed in their place. The militiamen attacked three photographers: Said Beiruti from al-Manar TV, and Assaad Ahmad and Wadih Shlink from al-Balad, another opposition newspaper. 

Shlink said he was in the Beshara al-Khoury area taking "regular" pictures of young men setting tires on fire.

"Suddenly, twenty of them attacked me. I ran looking for the security forces to protect me. Some soldiers tried to save me – in vain, because they were outnumbered by the rioters. They didn't calm down until they had taken my camera."

Shlink, who was taken to hospital with injuries to his head and ribs, expressed his regret concerning this attack that came with no apparent reason. He said he is counting on the security services to get his camera back or reimburse him.

Photographers Wadih Shlink (left) and a self-portrait of Assaad Ahmad. © Assaad Ahmad

Also in the Corniche Mazraa area, Said Beyrouti, a reporter for Al-Manar TV, associated with Hezbollah, was kept from covering the event by the armed forces, Al-Manar has said.

"Lebanese armed forces stopped Beyrouti from getting closer even though others were allowed to do their work," Al-Manar said. 'When Beyrouti protested, a soldier tried to take his camera from him. When he resisted, he was hit over the head."

Bleeding from the head, Beyrouti had to be hospitalized.

Pulled by the hair

Patricia Khodor, of the French-language L'Orient-Le Jour newspaper, was collecting information to write a report about the situation in the Monnot area when she heard voices coming from the Damascus road. Monnot is a nightlife spot in Christian East-Beirut but it sits almost on the former Green Line separating it from West-Beirut.

On the Damascus Road, masked men were throwing stones. She tried to get closer when she noticed that some of the men were smashing a colleague's camera. When one of the men men saw her taking notes, he started screaming "Journalist, journalist!," and the gang quickly moved in on her. They chased her for a few meters before pulling her by her hair and attacking her.

Khodor says she works a full-timer at her newspaper, without any affiliation to any political party. She was only carrying her notebook, which the rioters took and ripped to pieces.

She takes her breath and says with sorrow, "My work today has been worthless, I won't even write anything."

She too wonders about the reason behind the attack. "If they don't want the people to see what they are doing, why are they doing it?" she asked.

Ordered to leave

In the airport area, an opposition stronghold, things were not better.

A reporter and crew for LBCI TV put up with harassment for four hours, with some rioters throwing rocks at them, until they were finally ordered to leave the area.

Other crews belonging to LBCI and Future TV, both associated with the government were forbidden from entering some areas belonging to the opposition.

On another hand, Gaby Mrad of OTV, the TV station belonging to Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, said he had no trouble reporting in pro-government areas. But then his station had handed out assignments according to where the reporters lived. "If you live in the area, it is easier to find someone to protect you and facilitate your work," he said.

Malek Kaakour, of al-Hayat, which is seen as sympathetic to the government, said he was able to do his work without too much trouble. But he said he was shocked to see armed men asking people for their ID in the streets without justification.

Meanwhile, in a worrying development, protesters at the Tayoune roundabout in South Beirut were seen distributing a leaflet saying the media was distorting their image.

Violence expected to continue

Lebanon's Syndicate of Photographers issued a statement on Wednesday, denouncing "what photographers were subjected to during the coverage of the demonstrations from attacks, injuries and harassment."

It cited the names of the injured as Wadih Shlink, Assad Ahmad and Mahmoud al-Taweel, and the destruction of the cameras of Jamal al-Shamaa and Wadih Shankal, in addition to the temporary detention of journalists in a few areas.

The Syndicate called upon all "political and security parties" to ask their partisans "not to attack the photographers but to facilitate their work and protect them."

It also called upon them to compensate the journalists who were attacked, "and to upon them the financial, emotional and physical costs."

Street violence in Beirut is expected to continue, as Hezbollah has vowed to keep up the blockade of the international airport until the government reinstates brigadier general Wafiq Shoukayr. Shoukayr was sacked for alleged ties to Hezbollah after it was discovered that the group had installed secret surveillance cameras around the airport.

Wednesday's violence was sparked by a general strike demanding wage hikes amid rising prices but it quickly degenerated into street battles between supporters of the pro-Western government and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

Hezbollah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is expected to hold a press conference on Thursday.