Journalist Mariam Seif Eddine fled Lebanon in 2021 after her family was attacked. (Photo: Fadel Itani)

‘When you stop writing, they win’: Exiled after attacks, Lebanese journalist Mariam Seif Eddine is still reporting

When a teenager’s burned body was discovered in Mariam Seif Eddine’s neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburb in September 2020, the journalist knew she had to report the story, even if it meant crossing Hezbollah. The Shia political party and militant group likes to keep tight control on information coming out of its strongholds, she told CPJ. “Hezbollah doesn’t like coverage in Beirut’s southern district without its approval.” 

Eddine’s story, which was published in Lebanese newspaper Nidaa al-Watan, detailed the family’s fears of impunity in the teenager’s death and the political pressures that often play a role in covering up crimes in the area. The story went viral, she said, and online commentators began to accuse her of “treachery” against Hezbollah and the Shia political party Amal, even though she didn’t name them in the piece. 

Soon, the accusations escalated into assaults on her family, and in 2021 Eddine and her parents, sister, and two brothers decided to flee to France. Since then, Eddine has continued reporting in exile about Lebanon for investigative journalism website Daraj

In an interview with CPJ, Eddine went into detail about the family’s decision to leave and explained why Lebanese journalists face increasing threats. Lebanon is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on May 15 amid political and economic instability after the 2019 protests and the 2020 Beirut port explosion

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You started to receive serious threats after you reported on the teenager killed in your neighborhood. When did the threats turn into assaults? 

Mariam Seif Eddine: On November 2, 2020, my older brother was pushed on the ground, he was bitten in the eye. This attack was launched by members of our family affiliated with Hezbollah. They told us to leave our home “or you will be killed.” Other people linked with Hezbollah then continued the threats. 

Then on December 5, 2020, a group of men, some carrying weapons, attacked our home and assaulted my family members; my younger brother was punched in the face, his nose was broken. All of this was fueled by an incitement campaign which included accusations that we were agents for Israel, and that we had committed treachery and slander. 

When we tried to report these attacks, the security forces didn’t take us seriously, violating our rights. Even then [after the December attack], they treated us as if we were the attackers, not the plaintiffs. The judge didn’t take our complaints seriously, as she told me “you can go home” even when I told her we were forced out, attacked. 

[Editor’s note: Reached by CPJ, Hezbollah media liaison Rana Sahili said that the violence against Eddine’s family was caused by a “family dispute,” and not Eddine’s journalism. She said Hezbollah played no role in the dispute. A senior officer in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces media office told CPJ that the security forces had conducted investigations into the attacks but did not provide further details.]

You said the physical attacks were prefaced by an online campaign against you. Are online campaigns like these, in particular against female journalists, common in Lebanon? 

These campaigns take the form of hate speech, spreading misinformation, [accusations of] treachery, and are in fact, a moral assassination. They aim to silence women journalists by fueling the misogynistic society already against them, and some fake accounts even try to slut shame you. If that doesn’t get to you, they distort your reporting by making posts mischaracterizing your work and opinions to make you seem like an extremist. 

Some journalists unfortunately participate in these kinds of campaigns. They try to terrorize other journalists by making them feel they’re under constant monitoring.

Every word used in such campaigns aim to destroy the mental health of women journalists. Threats against women journalists are often linked to the society’s way of approaching them in the first place. When a man says what I say, he’s not threatened the same way. Political parties are more threatened when women speak up because it’s often women who challenge society’s “sacred” topics. 

I tried to ignore most of these comments but some of them contained rape threats, vulgar misogynistic slurs, and death threats. Even after I left the country, these violent online campaigns against me continued in an aim to silence me or push me to self-censor my articles and posts. 

Every social media platform has its own regulations, and on Twitter, some violence and orchestrated campaigns through fake accounts is allowed. These regulations often favor powerful violent people over journalists and activists – when they try to report abusive behavior it leads to nothing. 

[Editor’s note: Reached by CPJ, a Twitter spokesperson said via email the company has made “recent strides” to protect people online but acknowledged there is “still work to be done.”] 

How would you characterize the state of press freedom in Lebanon? 

Press freedom in Lebanon is deteriorating. We’re now allowed to speak only within limits.

When there was rising political tension in the country [with multiple parties vying for power] the margin of freedom was bigger, as freedom spiked after Syrian troops left Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year occupation. But when one party dominates the scene as President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement has done since his election 2016, we see how freedom of expression and freedom of the press have taken a fall [since one party can more easily dictate coverage]. Also the funding a news outlet gets plays a role in the margin of freedom [as some politicians fund or own news outlets].

But the alternative media in the country is pushing back against this. These relatively new outlets allow journalists to report on “taboos” and “red lines,” and publish a new narrative not accepted in other media outlets which are funded by powerful actors inside the country.

Are journalists legally protected in Lebanon? 

In Lebanon, there are laws that govern media and publishing, but there’s no law that aims at protecting the safety of journalists, which is a must. There must be a law that protects journalists against threats they face because of doing their jobs. 

Laws in the country are used against weaker people who aren’t backed by powerful actors and parties. The judiciary acts on defamation lawsuits but complaints about death threats to journalists “sleep in drawers” [filed away and never revisited by officials], which essentially means laws are used against us and never to allow us to defend ourselves.

After everything you have faced, why are you still practicing journalism in exile?

If we stop writing, they win. After fleeing the country, I feel more responsible for documenting what’s happening in people’s lives, especially to raise the voice of those who were forced into silence. 

Editor’s note: The order of of events in the assaults against Eddine’s brothers has been corrected in the seventh and eighth paragraphs.