By Simona Sikimic
BEIRUT: The ongoing press wars raging in the media have spilled into actual violence against journalists on more than one occasion this year, raising fears reporters could bear the brunt of any further political escalations.
“If there is an intensification of political problems [in Lebanon,] then the journalists will be the first target,” said Omar Harqous, an Al-Mustaqbal newspaper reporter who was badly beaten in November 2008 by supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
“Whenever political tensions rise we directly know we have to reduce our activities in sensitive areas.”
Attention has turned on the press this week as politicians and journalists rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National News Agency and World Press Freedom Day, casting a spotlight on the future of press freedom, and crucially protection.
In the wake of the fall of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Cabinet on Jan. 12, an alarming development saw journalists intentionally targeted during Tripoli’s “Day of Rage,” when pro-March 14 supporters set fire to an Al-Jazeera television van, forcing its crew to take refuge on a nearby roof.
The event was followed in April by another widely publicized incident in Sidon, where demonstrators attacked reporters covering an anti-sectarian rally, seizing photo and other equipment.
“Being a journalist means looking for problems. When you seek the truth you put yourself in danger,” said veteran journalist May Chidiac, who barely survived a devastating car bomb attack in 2005 that severed her left arm and leg.
“But, if you like your job, you will do it. It’s a passion.”
Unlike much of the Arab world where violence has been state sanctioned, in Lebanon the “vast majority” of the assaults so far have been perpetrated “by groups of young men supporting political parties,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog.
However, the absence of direct political interference hasn’t prevented “these men, affiliated with one political party of another, engaging journalists because that they are unhappy about their presence and don’t want them to show the strength or weakness of their faction is.”
This phenomenon is international and is an unwelcome, but unavoidable, part of the job. Unfortunately, what makes the situation more volatile in Lebanon is the close affiliation between media outlets and political parties, which means journalists may be labeled as easy, and even legitimate, political targets.
“I wasn’t surprised to see violence targeting journalists, because the problem is also in the media,” said Firas Hatoum, a reporter with Al-Jadeed television. “All the television stations approached the events politically and not in an objective way.
“You have political stations owned by political parties and, of course, the station is going to present the view of the party … so people see you as journalist in a TV station, owned by a specific party.”
This polarization also extends to the legal rights afforded to journalists that are dictated by the government but have left many complaining of unjust treatment based on political affiliation of their employer.
“There are no laws to specifically protect journalists,” said Harqous. “Journalists should be taken to court, but they should also be able to defend themselves in front of a neutral judge. At the moment it is all about how lucky you are with your judge.”
Hatoum also claims his 45-day incarceration in 2007 was dealt with on “political lines and not on journalism ethics.”
He was arrested for entering the house of Mohammad Zuheir Siddiq, a so-called “false witness” in the investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“During my detention many pro-Hariri institutions were against me and were supporting directly, or indirectly, the decision to detain me, but the other TV stations, which were anti-Hariri, were supporting me,” he said.
While journalists remain divided on the validity of his arrest, most agree the law is malleable.
“We have to apply the law … and the law stipulates that if you cannot go inside a house where you are not allowed,” said Chidiac. “But sometimes we use the law whenever we are in power to put a higher sentence on people who are not with us, while if they were on the ruling side, the sentence would be [smaller].”
In the absence of an active union to protect the rights of reporters, and sufficient legislation or security to assure their safety, the scope for abuse is significant, regardless of the country’s reputation as a bastion of press freedom in a region known for its repressive media policies.
More than six years after veteran journalists Gibran Tueni and Samir Kassir were killed in a string of devastating attacks, which also left Chidiac in intensive care, not a single suspect has been arrested.
“Even if it isn’t the government’s aim to persecute journalists, every time a journalist is attacked and the perpetrator isn’t prosecuted it acts as encouragement to repeat these offenses,” said Dayem. “It suggests you can simply get away with it … ”
The lack of institutionalized protection affects politicians, civilians and journalists alike.
Most shrug off verbal or other intimidation but incidents, like last week’s Beirut candlelight vigil in solidarity with Syrian protesters, where three journalists were beaten, are a constant reminder about the limits to free expression.
“These attacks have a bad effect on journalistic freedom. They instill fear in people and prevent journalists from going and covering evens in certain areas,” said Harqous, who claims that he and his family have received several warnings over the years.
Certain moves have been made in the right direction, and a draft law, designed to bring press laws in line with international standards was introduced for ministerial approval in November 2009.
If accepted, the bill would end some of the worst state abuses, such as prison penalties for publishing offenses and government licensing of news media. But, even if enforced, legislation can only be part of the solution, and with or without it journalists vow to continue their work.
“I believe in freedom, wherever one is, even in the worst places in the world … one should never get rid of their freedom,” said Harqous.
“There are rights for you to get and give information freely. If information doesn’t reach the people then there will be no knowledge.”
And, as Chidiac put it: “Journalists put themselves on the line, this is part of the value of their work. That is why every year we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, if there was no threat, maybe we wouldn’t need to celebrate it any longer?” – Additional reporting by Van Meguerditchian