Soldiers patrol in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, on January 16, 2021. Security forces recently attempted to arrest journalist Radwan Mortada over his commentary on the city's 2020 port explosion. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Lebanese journalist Radwan Mortada questioned over port explosion criticism

In the morning of January 15, 2021, Lebanese intelligence officers arrived at the Beirut home of Radwan Mortada, a reporter for the local daily Al-Akhbar, and ordered him to go to the Intelligence Directorate’s Investigation Branch immediately for questioning, he said in an interview with local broadcaster Al-Jadeed TV later that day.

The officers claimed they had an arrest warrant signed by Judge Fadi Akiki, the government’s commissioner to the military court, but Murtada refused to go with them, saying only the country’s Publications Court was entitled to summon a journalist, he said in that interview.

Later that day, military police and army intelligence vehicles surrounded the Beirut office of Al-Jadeed TV and again ordered Mortada to go to the intelligence directorate, according to reports by Al-Jadeed TV and Al-Akhbar, other news reports, and the regional press freedom organization Skeyes.

Mortada again refused to comply with the officers, and remained inside the Al-Jadeed TV office until authorities left the scene, according to those reports and a live interview with Al-Jadeed TV deputy CEO Karmi Khayyat, who said that the security officers were searching vehicles coming in and out of the broadcaster’s premises, and confirmed that Mortada was inside the building. 

Authorities sought to question Mortada for allegedly insulting the military, a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in jail, in a January 9 interview on Al-Jadeed, according to those reports. In that interview, the journalist criticized authorities’ handling of the August 4 explosion in a building in Beirut’s port, which killed over 200 people, and he called the Army’s failure to prevent such an explosion “donkey-like.”

After that interview, Joseph Aoun, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, filed a request to question the journalist for allegedly misleading the judicial investigation into the blast, and his request was granted by Judge Akiki, according to those reports.

In the evening of January 15, Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat withdrew the arrest warrant on the condition that Mortada appear at the public prosecutor’s office for questioning, rather than the intelligence services, according to Al-Jadeed TV

On January 18, Oueidat questioned Murtada in Beirut’s Justice Palace, according to Skeyes and Al-Jadeed TV. In an interview with the broadcaster afterwards, Mortada said that he was satisfied to appear before a court of law rather than before a security agency.

In that interview, Mortada denied referring to the Army as a whole as “donkey-like,” saying instead that he was only referring to those people who had been negligent leading up to the port explosion. Also during that interview, Mortada’s lawyer, Mazen Hoteit, said that the case is expected to be heard by the court of appeals, which can refer it to the Publications Court.

CPJ emailed the Lebanese Army for comment, but did not immediately receive any response.