Lebanese soldiers patrol a protest in a Beirut suburb on June 11, 2020. Soldiers assaulted five journalists near the city on June 28, 2020. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Lebanese soldiers assault 5 journalists covering protest north of Beirut; judge bans outlets from interviewing U.S. ambassador

On June 28, 2020, Lebanese soldiers assaulted at least five journalists while they were reporting on protesters who were attempting to block a highway in Jal el-Dib, five and a half miles (nine kilometers) north of Beirut, according to news reports, the regional press freedom group SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, reports in An-Naharand L’Orient-Le Jour, where two of the assaulted journalists are employed, as well as video footage posted on social media.

The assaulted journalists were Marc Fayad, a photographer for the daily newspaper An-Nahar, Joseph Barrak, photographer for the daily newspaper Al-Joumhouria, Joao Sousa, photographer for the French-language daily newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour, Fadl Itani, a photographer for the newspaper Nidaa al-Watan, and Dani Tanios, a cameraman for the Lebanese broadcaster MTV, according to SKeyes and the news reports.

Fayad told CPJ via messaging app on June 30 that a soldier hit him and broke his glasses even though he was wearing a vest clearly marked with the word “press.”

“Unfortunately, it’s always the same thing with the army hitting us knowing that we have our press vest on. It’s very clear that we are members of the press,” Fayad said.

A video posted by Fayad’s employer, An-Nahar, on its official Facebook account shows Fayad trying to take a picture of the clashes between protesters and soldiers when a soldier tries to snatch his camera, saying “give me the camera” while Fayad identifies himself as a journalist. In the video, the soldier can be seen slapping Fayad’s glasses off of his face.

In a video interview posted to the Facebook page Angry Revolution Group, an account featuring videos from various sources about recent Lebanese protests, Tanios and Itani provided an account of the incident. According to Tanios, a soldier grabbed him by the neck while he was filming the protest, snatched his camera, and broke it by throwing it to the ground.

A video of the aftermath of the incident posted on Itani’s private Facebook account shows Tanios and a masked soldier arguing while Tanios holds his camera and takes the broken camera’s light from the soldier’s hand.

According to SKeyes’ statement, Itani said a soldier hit him in the chest with a stick while another tried to hit his camera with a stick.

“I was pushed by more than one soldier while I was covering the confrontation between protesters and soldiers. Unfortunately, we are becoming afraid of covering the protests, because even protesters now want to know why they are filming and for whom,” Itani told SKeyes.

During the same incident, a soldier hit Sousa with the butt of his rifle and tried to snatch his camera, according to a news report in L’Orient-Le Jour, where Sousa works, and Sousa, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app on July 6.

“I and Marc Fayyad were looking for stories on the current shortages of bread when we arrived at the scene of the protests. I started to take pictures of the scene, but when I took a picture of the place where the soldiers were standing, a soldier approached me and told me that I couldn’t take pictures. I replied that I am a journalist, but he nonetheless said I couldn’t take pictures,” Sousa said.

Sousa also told CPJ that a few protesters were trying to block the highway, whereas others started shouting and throwing things at the soldiers and then the soldiers charged and began to hit people indiscriminately.

“A soldier who was out of control came to me and hit me with the butt of his rifle in my left arm. I sustained no injuries. After a bit, the soldiers retreated and charged again and another soldier came after me and tried to grab my camera, but since it was wrapped around my neck, he couldn’t take it. The entire situation was scary, because it was pitch dark because of the frequent power outages and some protesters were being cornered in very dark areas,” Sousa said.

Barrak told CPJ via messaging app on July 1 that he was hit in his right forearm, but he said that he doesn’t know whether he was hit by soldiers or protesters who were close to him because it was very dark on the street. 

The Lebanese Army did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on June 30.

In a separate incident, judge Mohammed Mazeh, who is based in Tyre, a stronghold of the Shia militia Hezbollah, issued an order banning media outlets from interviewing U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea for a year or face a US$200,000 fine and a one-year broadcast ban, according to news reports.

The decision came after Shea accused Hezbollah of destabilizing Lebanon and jeopardizing its economic recovery in an interview with the Saudi-owned broadcaster Al-Hadath on June 26, according to news reports.

However, Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad said on Twitter shortly after the judge announced his decision that nobody has the right to ban media from reporting the news or to limit media freedom, the reports said.