Policeman: Photography is “illegal” in Hamra

Policeman: Photography is “illegal” in Hamra

24
IMG_0482

A few minutes ago I was taking this picture when a policeman shouted at me.

Cop: “Hey, stop, stop! What are you doing?? Don’t you know photography is forbidden?”

Me: [Pointing to intersection] “Photography is forbidden here?”

Cop: [Looking exasperated] “Of course. It is illegal to take photos, not just here, anywhere in Hamra! Even anywhere in Beirut!”

Me: Are you serious? What does it matter if I take a picture?

Cop: Yes of course I am serious! Don’t you know about the terrorism? I can call this in and they will come here and pick you up and take you away. There is a jail sentence!

Me: Is this a new law, what law is it?

Cop: Yes. It’s a law, I don’t know what it is called! I didn’t say anything after the first or second photo, but then you took two or three! But you seemed like a nice guy so I will let it slide. Just don’t take any more, okay?

Me: Do you know what you are saying? Do you know how many people you need to arrest to enforce this law? Do you know how many buses you need to arrest everyone taking photos today in Hamra or the rest of Beirut?”

Suddenly our conversation is interrupted by a loud police siren. A big black suburban with black tinted windows comes careening into the intersection in front of us and hangs a left onto Hamra street. Inside are two college-aged boys. The license plate has only three numbers.

Me: Why don’t you arrest those people? They are not police, they are kids and they have a police siren?

Cop: [wry smile] Oh no, I can’t touch them. Every number in 600 (i.e. 600-699) belongs to Berri. (A senior parliamentarian.)

(The plate actually began with number 1)

I then point to a car with no tail lights, a motorcyclist without a helmet, the traffic lights around us, each one illegally festooned with a flag of a certain Lebanese political party that has claimed this intersection as its territory. See red circles:

Interrupted panorama shot. I couldn’t get a better one because of the new “law” against photography

Me: So all this illegal stuff is going on right in front of you, every minute, and you want to stop me for taking a picture of it?

Cop: Listen. [Pulls out tiny folded up piece of paper from his pocket] You see this? It says here my duty today is “traffic management.” I can’t issue tickets until after this shift is over tonight.

(I didn’t think of it at the time, but why then was he trying to arrest me if technically he had no right?)

Cop: Let me tell you a story. Once I stopped this guy who was harassing a woman. He was Syrian, he had no ID papers. I got a phone call from headquarters. They said release him immediately. You see people have “wasta” (connections), there are people you can’t touch.”

I bid the cop farewell, wishing him more success at his job in the future.

Postscript:

Of course, I have been harassed for taking photos before, but ironically the police once actually tried but failed to help. I’ve also been physical assaulted for taking photos, not by authorities, but by private developers and political hooligans. Flags are also routinely hung by all parties in Lebanon as I documented in Zalka, Ain El Mreise, Ain El Remmaneh and elsewhere. But this is the first time I am told there is an actual “law” prohibiting photos on public streets.  

24 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Rita, this post is excellent! I was wondering if I could use it for a paper I am currently writing on the effect of paranoia and the systematic Othering of Syrians in Lebanon. Please let me know (rocketgirl__@hotmail.com). thanks.

  2. I was stopped once next to downtown headquarters because I was sitting on a public chair holding a book doing an assignment for uni. I showed them that I have a legal document for my assignment/project. They ignored it 🙂 and kicked me out of the area.

  3. Related tot the article shared by ghazayel: There is a law that forbids taking photos of any police or security official in the country. It’s been here for ages.
    But when it comes to photography in Beirut – i haven’t heard of such a law, and particularly not in Hamra. I experienced these in nwayreh in 2008 and next to kraytem in 2009, but never by traffic light police.
    This is radically preposterous: especially in Hamra where everybody and his mother has a camera and snaps artsy and non artsy photos all the time. Particularly on Habib al Shartouni’s intersection as it is historical and nice.

    • I have been a resident of Hamra for 51 years and I’ve never seen or heard of shartooni intersection. Which one is it?

  4. I was also arrested for taking a picture in downtown. I was handcuffed and taken to the makhfar. They told me about this new stupid law.

  5. This is normal we where group of 4 people each had a cam two cams where confiscated only after 2 weeks we got them back 😀 shitty country with shitty heads

  6. 2011 in Tripoli’s Mina at night, was doing night photography when an old mercedes with no plate parked on the side and 4 men went down circled me and started asking questions, asked to review all my photos stating it was strictly forbidden to take pictures here. I had my “press” card (tho expired) which really helped me in the situation as i told them i was a journalist and im doing some documentation shots about Tripoli. They escorted me to my car insisting that i delete my photos (which i did not do)… when i asked them where can i take photos then their answer was clear: “everywhere else but not here!”…….

    • you summed up lebanon in this little piece. somebody has to show how corrupt and chaotic life is for the public to stand up for their rights. Most people don’t care what’s going on. Historical homes are being torn down and there are no photos of them. I hope you can take pictures of the old houses in Ashrafieh, Basta,wherever even the villages before they get destroyed.

    • My daughter recently did a photography project about old traditional houses and although she’s just 15 and I was with her, we still got interrupted many times and asked to leave especially in Bliss street next to Socrate because of a politician’s security. The guards were nice though and eventually let her take a picture when they noticed her age and knew about the project.

  7. Taking photos on the streets was an issue 15 years ago (pre smartphone). As students taking photos for class, we were stopped by cops, ‘civilians’, Ka3ak vendors, beggars, military personnel, the natour… you name it. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t an issue today. Nothings changed, except today, its easier to take them.

Leave a Reply