Journalists banned from entering Beirut park

Citizens and journalists were held up at the park’s main entrance on Saturday.

Municipal police prevented reporters from LBC and Ad Diyar newspaper from entering Horsh Beirut during a rare opening of the city’s largest park this weekend, eyewitnesses said.

The journalists were banned from covering the brief park opening because city officials wanted to avoid “negative coverage” of the discriminatory policies that have shut the public out of the park for over a decade, social activist Mohammad Ayoub told me.

Ayoub is the director of Nahnoo, an NGO that focuses on green space and youth activities, which had secured permission for a three hour picnic in the Horsh on Saturday. Ayoub witnessed the banning of journalists as did activists from Beirut Green Space and the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.

By preventing television cameras from entering the space, city officials also prevented evening news coverage of a planned press conference where activists would draw attention to the municipality’s discriminatory polices, such as a rule that only allows foreign nationals from wealthy countries access to the park, as reported last week by The Daily Star.

Citizens were allowed briefly into the park this weekend.

The banning of journalists was also covered by today’s issue of L’Orient Le Jour.

Activist Raja Noujaim of APLH was also a witness to the censorship policy describing it as “dictatorship behavior” in a Facebook post. He accused May Rahbani,  whom he said was head of gardens at Beirut municipality, of being behind the move.

Unfortunately for the municipality, not all journalists wear name tags or carry video cameras and banning of the press has brought more not less attention to the city’s discriminatory policies. But I was surprised not to see any coverage of this censorship on LBC’s newscast, when in fact getting banned from a park is actually a huge story.

Does the municipality have any legal jurisdiction over the press? Does the municipality of Beirut have the right to ban free speech? Are the things people say in public parks subject to monitoring and censorship by the municipal council? On what grounds can speech be policed in the park? Who decides what type of speech is allowed in the park?

It seems there are some serious constitutional questions to be raised here. Perhaps some lawyers out there can weigh in on this?

(Also this is not the first time the media has been banned from municipality events.)

Of course censorship is only part of the story. Why have citizens not been allowed into Horsh Beirut for over 10 years? Some have argued that the municipality lacks the resources to police or maintain the park. But how true is that? How can a government body rumored to possess $1 billion in reserves, not have enough money to afford a park staff?

Despite all this, I still managed to get into the Horsh this weekend. I’ll have more pictures of this gorgeous and unused space in an upcoming post. It is definitely worth fighting for.