Police are seen during anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 10, 2020. Security forces and demonstrators have attacked journalists covering the protests. (Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani)

Security forces and demonstrators injure journalists covering protests over Beirut port explosion

New York, August 11, 2020 — Lebanese authorities should immediately investigate recent attacks on journalists by demonstrators and security forces, hold those responsible to account, and ensure that journalists can cover protests safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 4, an explosion of stored chemicals in Beirut’s port resulted in more than 200 deaths, and sparked widespread protests over authorities’ handling of the blast, according to news reports.

On August 8, soldiers, police, and protesters injured at least 13 journalists covering the demonstrations, according to news reports, journalists who spoke to CPJ and posted on social media, and a report by the Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, a regional press freedom group.

“Now more than ever, Lebanon’s citizens need accurate and dependable information on what is happening in their country; attacks on journalists will only result in more confusion and unrest,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Lebanese authorities should conduct thorough investigations into attacks on journalists by demonstrators and security forces, and ensure those responsible face consequences.”

Soldiers assaulted Al-Jazeera English reporter Timour Azhari, freelance photojournalist Rita Kabalan, and a BBC Persian TV crew consisting of reporter Nafiseh Kohnavard and a camera operator, according to news reports, Skeyes, and the journalists.

In a video posted on his personal Twitter account, Azhari filmed a soldier swinging a wooden stick and hitting him in the head, and wrote that soldiers also tried to take his cell phone, but failed to do so. He said he was not seriously injured.

In a video interview with BBC Persian, Kohnavard said that a soldier grabbed her by the neck and shoved her and the camera operator, whose name she did not disclose, even though they wore clearly marked press vests.

Kabalan told CPJ via messaging app that a soldier hit her with the butt of his rifle and knocked her to the ground. She said she passed out after the blow and a young man took her to an ambulance.

“I told the paramedics I was fine and that I would go to the hospital the next day, but they made me walk to make sure I was fine,” she said. “I didn’t sleep just in case I had a concussion.”

She told CPJ that she went to a hospital on August 9, where she was treated for bruises and a broken collarbone. Kabalan said the attack scratched her cameras but did not break them.

Kabalan said she was wearing a helmet and a gas mask, and the soldier who hit her never inquired about her press credentials. She later posted a video of the attack on her Facebook page.

Amid the protests, unidentified individuals fired rubber bullets that hit Makram al-Halabi, a camera operator for the online news platform Magaphone, in his left leg, and Maher al-Murr, a camera operator for the Saudi broadcaster Al-Arabiya, in his right leg, according to Al-Halabi, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a report by Al-Arabiya.

Al-Halabi told CPJ that he was filming protesters when he suddenly felt something hit his leg.

“At the beginning I didn’t know what it was. I was still in shock about what had happened to my leg. It was later, when I was taken to Clemenceau Hospital, that the doctor told me I had been hit by a rubber bullet. They gave me four stitches,” he said, saying he suspected the projectile was fired by security forces, but did not see who fired it.

Al-Murr was injured in his right leg, but his employer’s report and footage of the incident do not reveal who fired the shot or the extent of Al-Murr’s injuries.

Riot police also fired tear gas canisters that injured three members of a crew working for Lebanese news website and production company Newsgate, according to Skeyes and Serge Rouhana, the administrator of the Newsgate Facebook account, and reporter Stephano Rouhana, both of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Serge said that the team comprised Stefano, Pierre Boutros, Ronald Georgovich, George Maroun, and Sarkis Kechichian, but he did not specify who was injured or the specifics of their injuries, other than that the injuries were minor.

Stephano said that police fired tear gas near him, prompting him to flee the area. He said police then fired more tear gas grenades, and as he ran away, he said that police also fired rubber bullets.

“The square was empty, so it was impossible to mistake me for a protester,” he told CPJ. After his team fled the area, Stephano said that two soldiers advanced toward him.

“One of them was holding a stick over his head and was aiming at my head. I flashed my press card and screamed ‘I am a reporter’ but the other soldier grabbed me by the shoulder and pushed me against a car,” he said, adding that the soldiers continued shoving him as he ran away.

Also on August 8, demonstrators threw rocks that hit the heads of Layal Bou Moussa, a reporter for the independent Lebanese broadcaster Al-Jadeed, Edmond Sassine, a reporter for the Lebanese broadcaster LBCI, and Fadi Sakaf, a camera operator for the Lebanese broadcaster MTV, according to Skeyes, news reports and reports by the journalists’ employers, and social media posts by the journalists.  

Photos published in those reports show Sassine and Sakaf being treated for bloody injuries on their heads. The journalists were provided with first aid at the scene and were later treated in hospitals, according to those reports.

A video posted on Twitter shows Bou Moussa being hit in the head by a stone; she was wearing a helmet and did not appear to sustain any injuries. 

About five demonstrators who gathered to support the Shia political party Amal, part of Lebanon’s ruling coalition, assaulted Iskandar Khashasho, a reporter for the local daily An-Nahar, while he was covering clashes between soldiers and protesters in Beirut on August 8, according to his employer and Skeyes. 

“They beat me severely. I was screaming that I am a journalist, but they didn’t stop beating me. They seized my phone and deleted all the footage and pictures that I had taken,” he told Skeyes. “They kept beating me until Lebanese soldiers came to my help. A Lebanese soldier talked to an Amal official, who eventually gave me my phone back.”

CPJ emailed the Lebanese Army, the Interior Security Forces, and the Amal Movement for comment, but did not immediately receive any responses.

According to Skeyes and the Maharat Foundation, a Beirut-based press freedom group, at least 25 newsrooms were damaged and at least 31 journalists were injured as a result of the August 4 explosion.