Lebanon's media war revived after assault on Future TV reporter



 
Dozens of journalists gathered in Beirut on Friday to protest the grave assault on Future TV reporter Omar Harqous by militants of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The incident has revived political tensions that have been simmering under the surface since last May, when opposition forces shut down several media outlets associated with the government, Future TV among them.
 
By RITA BAROTTA
 
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May revisited: A picture of Future TV journalist Omar Harqous is hung up during a sit-in in front of Future TV on Friday. © Wael Hamze / EPA

BEIRUT, November 28, 2008 (MENASSAT) — Dozens of journalists, intellectuals and politicians showed up for a sit-in in front of Future News TV headquarters in the Qantari neghborhood of Beirut on Friday to protest the assault on Future journalist Omar Harqous. Harqous was badly beaten up by supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) while he was reporting on a story in the Hamra neighborhood on Thursday.

The demonstrators were joined by Information Minister Tarek Mitri and Transportation Minister Ghazi al-Aridi. Mitri called for "immediate action to prosecute the perpetrators," stressing the necessity to "permanently end violence against journalists, which is not acceptable in any way no matter what the reasons are."

'Until we know'

During the sit-in, three huge photos were hung from the Future News TV building: one showing Harqous in his hospital bed, another of the old Future TV building in flames and a third one of the Mustaqbal (Future) newspaper building after it was attacked during the events of last May. The three photos were accompanied by the slogan, "Until we know!"

In May 2008, opposition forces briefly occupied West Beirut in a demonstration of force against the so-called "March 14" forces which then made up the Lebanese government. Militants of Hezbollah, Amal and the SSNP also moved against media outlets associated with the government. Future News TV was shut down for five days, its old studios in Raouche burned down and the Mustaqbal newspaper offices attacked.

A Qatar-brokered peace agreement led to the formation of a new powersharing government later that month, narrowly avoiding a return to civil war in Lebanon. But despite the relative peace in the past six months, political tension remains high in Lebanon. It was what led up to the assault on Omar Harqous.

Poster controversy

Harqous had been sent to Hamra, a mixed neighborhood that has many March 14 supporters as well as a hard core of SSNP supporters, to report on a gathering of SSNP youth on Hamra Street. The SSNP militants were angry because of a rumor that the party had been asked to remove a small memorial for one of its martyrs, Khaled Alwan, in Hamra Street.

Earlier this year, the new government had decreed that all political posters and banners should be removed from the streets of Beirut in an attempt to cool the political tension in the neighborhoods. All political parties had agreed to the decision.

Recently however, a controversy had arisen over the question whether the small Khaled Alwan memorial on a corner of Hamra Street should be considered a political symbol under the new directive—especially since the SSNP had been promised by former (pro-Syrian) president Emile Lahoud that the street corner would officially be renamed Khaled Alwan Square. As the question lingered, the removal of posters of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the hero of the March 14 forces, was also postponed so as not to upset the delicate political balance.

But an article in Thursday's Al-Akhbar newspaper, suggesting that the Khaled Alwan memorial was going to be removed, greatly upset the militants of the SSNP. When several dozen of them converged on the Khaled Alwan memorial, many media outlets immediately dispatched reporters to the scene.

Media solidarity

Omar Harqous, of Future TV and Mustaqbal newspaper, was one of them. Harqous related what happened next from a bed in the American University Hospital.

"Some men came up to me and asked my name. One of them shouted, 'You are Omar Harqous, from the Democratic Left Party!” and I answered, 'Yes.' [He shouted,] 'You are a Jew, you dog.' Then they started hitting me. Some fellow journalists took me to the hospital. I suffer from pains in my neck and all over my body."

In fact, in a twist of fate, Harqous was saved by Jihad Bazzi and Jouhaniah Khaldieh, two journalists working with As-Safir, a newspaper closer to the "opposition" than the government. According to witnesses, none of the security officers present on the scene interfered on Harqous' behalf.
 
After Harqous was transported to the hospital, news spread that the Lebanese Army had arrested five SSNP militants in connection with the assault and that one of them had admitted to attacking Harqous.

'Personal conflict'

Immediately, the matter became a huge political issue with Future TV calling the SSNP militants "terrorists.. not satisfied with what they did to the citizens of Beirut and the Future institutions on May 7," and the SSNP accusing Future TV of exploiting the incident for political purposes.

The SSNP later issued a statement yesterday saying that the Hamra clash was the result of "a personal conflict Harqous had with a party member, after the journalist tried to take a picture of the partisan against his will, abusing his personal freedom, while the latter was present in Alwan square after news spread about an attempt to remove the banner."

The SSNP militant in question—apparently a journalist himself, with the SSNP party newspaper Sabah El-Kheir—later voluntarily turned himself in to the security forces. But Nadim Mounla, manager of Future News TV, told demonstrators outside the station's headqaurters yesterday that the channel "will accept no less than the arrest of all 15 men involved in the attack on Harqous."

As for Harqous himself, he told LBC television on Thursday that while the SSNP has the right to hang their posters, he had the right to do his job as a journalist. "This is the freedom of the press."

(Layal Abu Rahal contributed to this report.)