Tags Posts tagged with "censorship"

censorship

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“Listen you f**ks,” the man wearing military style pants and boots yelled at dozens of young male and female activists gathered in front of the environment ministry for anti-corruption protests last Wednesday (Sept. 16). He was advancing fast toward the crowd of #youstink activists, as a few police standing around looked on. “Anyone of you curses (Parliament speaker) Berri again and we will come down on you!”

“You are filming!? Stop filming you punk,” another of the men roared toward the end of the clip below, his eyes overcome with rage as he thrust his finger toward a cameraman.

Watch the video here:

Moments later chairs and tables began flying toward the crowd, as the men ruthlessly punched and kicked everyone in sight. Women are screaming, one falls to the ground. Others begin running and ducking. “They called us animals and whores,” one young woman complains, as she runs for cover.

Then projectiles began raining down. At first they were small rocks and bottles but then large pieces of concrete came twirling through the sky, launched indiscriminately at the crowd of peaceful protestors, many of them already on hunger strike.

See the video here:

Here are some stills from the video. At first people didn’t even realize what was happening:

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Then the concrete blocks started landing. One collided with the asphalt just a few feet away from where I was shooting:

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And just a few inches from a man’s leg and head:

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After several incoming volleys, one of the young boy protestors throws a couple of bottles and smaller rocks back. Amid the chaos, other protestors confront him, accusing him of being “one of them”.  But even as the young men argue, the blocks come raining down:

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And everyone runs for cover:

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The irony here is that during this wanton violence, dozens of heavily armored riot police were just standing only a few feet away at the entrance of the environment ministry, armed with shields and sticks . At about 1:30, I pan briefly in their direction. And other videos have emerged of the people literally begging the riot police to intervene. Yet only a handful of regular officers are begrudgingly sent over.

Even when a few police do arrive, they seem to do nothing to stop one of the violent men who continues to throw pieces of concrete at the men and women protestors:

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The officers are literally standing next to the man in black as he winds up to throw more rocks:

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So who were these men, ready to destroy dozens of people they did not even know? There was about 10 or 15 of them. They were largely middle-aged, clean shaven, button shirts and shiny sneakers. These were not the so-called “infiltrators” the young unruly protestors who broke glass and lit fires downtown, those claimed to be conspirators by many in the ruling class, eager to cast doubt on the movement. Many of those kids were understandably frustrated after police beatings and shootings of previous days and directed their anger toward the security forces, not the fellow protestors. They came from the slums, wearing ratty or cheap clothes and barely in their teens–none that I saw seemed to be over 20. On the other hand, those who attacked the protestors well groomed and dressed and appeared to be in their 30s and 40s if not older.

Amal movement, the party headed by Parliament Speaker Berri, has denied any involvement in the day’s events. Interestingly the television channel that supports the movement–NBN TV–did not cover any of the violence directly in its newscast, merely summarizing that clashes were sparked by the cursing and defamation of Mr. Berri. This is because minutes before the men came to attack the protestors, one of the activists had told a reporter with NBN that its patron would be the next target of the call for resignations. (The activists have already called for the resignations of the interior and environmental ministers for police brutality and failure to prevent the garbage crisis.)

Thus in NBN’s subsequent newscast, this clip is played repeatedly, followed by cherry-picked moments of confrontation between activists and police. No actual cursing of Speaker Berri is played–only a call for his resignation.

As the images run on screen,  the scripts read by reporters and anchors demonize the protestors as uncouth, uncivilized and immoral trouble-makers. The visibly angry NBN anchor then takes aim at Al Jadeed TV, (one of the few channels that has taken the side of the activists) and basically calls it a propaganda machine churning out hatred and sectarianism headed by a shady businessman. It’s no wonder considering some activists interviewed by the channel have been freely attacking senior Lebanese politicians, including Speaker Berri, over the state of corruption and chaos in the country.

But there is no footage of the fist fights and rock throwing of these men. “The police intervened and restored the situation to normal,” the NBN anchor reads nonchalantly from the teleprompter, no mention of the launching of projectiles that could have easily sent many to the hospital or worse.

Yet in reality,  as noted earlier, the riot police waited several minutes before intervening. Even though there were dozens of riot police in full gear standing only a few meters away, they barely budge as civilians are being beaten and targeted by concrete blocks being thrown by the mysterious men.

It was only after much of the damage has been done, the tents used by hunger-strikers destroyed, people beaten and rocks thrown savagely at the crowd that the riot police finally deploy, as seen in this video:

The police even made a couple of arrests. Here is one of them:

Many began to ask: why did they police wait around so long? Earlier in the day, police did not hesitate to rough up protestors and arrest some 40, many activist organizers with no justification. Most were released a few hours later. One, activist Aly Sleem, told me police had shoved him in a van, pushed his face into the floor and began threatening him with military prison or being sent to Syria. They drove him around in circles for two hours, claiming he had received foreign funding and had attacked police, both of which had no basis.

Here is my interview with Aly, shortly after he was released later on the same evening:

Were the men who attacked the activists also abducted, driven around and threatened by police or did they get off easier?

The story doesn’t end there. Four days later on Sept. 20, a group of some of the same men once again violently assaulted the protestors.

It all began when one of the activists held a banner denouncing corruption with the faces of some of the most powerful politicians. These included Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri. Beside this, the activist– middle-aged man wearing a bright vest–also held a picture of Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and the late Imam Mousa Sadr, dubbing the two as “symbols of respectability.”

Within minutes of raising the banner, two men run up to the activist. One says “Don’t you ever raise Nasrallah’s photo!” Ironically the activist was praising Nasrallah in comparison to other politicians. And yet he was hauled away as other partisan men began to fight those protestors who tried to intervene.

I ended this clip when one of the violent men wearing a black shirt and black hat is seen roaring wildly at those around him, sending many running. He then spots myself and a few other cameraman and begins lunging toward us. I put my phone down and then watched him walk passed me and punch, throw against a wall and then kick and beat two cameramen to the ground.

Suffice to say, there was very little filming after that, but thanks to the drone footage by Al Jadeed, we can see the rest of the fight continued in the clip below. Eventually the activist is dragged by his neck, his clothes ripped off and then beaten repeatedly by hand; then beaten repeatedly over the head with the megaphone he was holding.

After the activist is beaten, he is seen walking away from what appears to be a cordon of men who were keeping police out. The drone camera then follows the now bear-chested activist as he walks toward a few police officers to explain what happened. One officer waives him off as if telling him to get lost. (Literally adding insult to injury, the protestor is now being sued by Speaker Berri for defamation over his banner)

Later in the video above, we can see the violent men fall into a march formation, their numbers grow to about 30 as some join from the crowd. I notice several familiar faces from the previous attack at the environment ministry, including the man who kept throwing rocks at protestors despite the police presence. I watched as the men would stand around separately as if they didn’t know each other, circulate and then eventually join up together.  Once again, the riot police stand idly as the men pass defiantly in front of them.

They then began marching aggressively through the crowd, roughing up protestors and chanting loudly: “Berri comes after God” and “the revolution can have my dick.”

Thus the vulgar language, the rage in their eyes, and the willingness to commit fatal acts of violence seemed to be very similar tactics.  The men appeared to be part of a group, trained in how to operate discreetly in a crowd: fall into formation in a moment’s notice and then disperse back again and melt into anonymity.  There appear to be clear roles and objectives as only a few of the men engage in acts of violence while others weave through the crowd or stand close to the action without getting directly involved, seemingly to provide back up. There is often what appears to be a ring leader in his 40s/50s keeping the men in line, seen at the end of the Al Jadeed drone clip. Are we to believe these men gathered spontaneously? That they are a random sample of friends or neighbors?

And what about NBN TV and Amal’s version of events where no violence happens and the party has nothing do with the men attacking protestors?

Local broadcaster Al Jadeed did some investigating. It turns out two of the most violent characters on both days are indeed very close if not members of the party, according to this report:

Yet why are only two men investigated? What about the many others who were throwing punches or rocks at the crowd?

And what about the role of the police? Were they genuinely intimidated by these mystery men? How could the police take on thousands of peaceful protestors, arresting, tear-gassing and assualting dozens over recent weeks, and yet barely lift a finger to stop less than 10 or 20 men? Many were left wondering: which side are the police on?

Once again, who are these men? If Amal denies they are members, why are they so angry that someone cursed their leader or even simply called for his resignation? Could the men simply be average citizens who admire Speaker Berri? Then again, how many average men just sitting at home would feel they need to walk to a protest and physically harm as many people possible, with no ulterior incentive?

All this raises important questions about the future of the #youstink protest movement in Lebanon, which has undertaken several unprecedented acts of civil disobedience over recent weeks. But can leaders of political parties be questioned without retribution in violence? How many groups of men sitting at home today are willing to harm or even kill anyone who insults or even questions their leader?  How will the protest movement deal with these individuals? What motivates their rage? Are they victims of the civil war themselves, suffering perhaps from PTSD? How can one reconcile with the reality that so many in Lebanon are still dealing with the war and or employed by its post-war political apparatus? What strategies of resistance to the state can activists take in Lebanon without inviting violence from party loyalists?

Finally, will such violence and indiscriminate arrests by police dampen the protest movement? Or will more people be even more motivated to stand up for their right to speak out?

After the police arrests and beatings by party loyalists on September 20th, later that evening thousands of non-violent activists still showed up. They defiantly filled the streets leading to parliament. They did not resort to violence, they simply sat on the floor and raised their hands until riot police finally relented.

 

“From this point on, every square is owned by the people,” shouted activist Assaad Thebian over a megaphone, surrounded by a sea of protestors.

“Today is a historic day, ” he added. “Today we have a future and we have hope. Today we announce a new political party, the party of the Lebanese people!”

The crowd roared. Then later sang patriotic songs and danced together. The feeling was electric that night. Now more than a week later, many will be watching what the movement does next and how it will cope with those violent individuals who do not want to see it succeed.

6

“I don’t mind sitting here,” I told the Hezbollah guard who kept watch over us in a run-down prefabricated portable office. “But I haven’t eaten all day and I’m hungry,” I added, not knowing it was already 10PM.

“Tell me, what do you want to eat,” he asked.

“What are you going to eat,” my friend replied, trying to inject some normalcy to the tense silence after our interrogation. “We’ll have whatever you are having.”

“Just tell me what do you feel like having,” the Hezbollah guard insisted.

“How about shawarma,” I said, thinking of the famous south Beirut shawarma spot we were driving toward before getting pulled over and brought to this shack in an abandoned parking lot.

“Beef or chicken,” the Hezbollah guard asked without blinking.

We had been detained for nearly three hours and my hunger only added to the unease of not knowing what would happen to us next, if the guards were being honest or playing mind tricks on us or how panicked our parents and friends would be if they knew where we were. Our cell phones and IDs had been confiscated and all I could do was stare at the rusted bolt of the metal door that the guard kept shut as he watched us in silence–his black baseball cap turned low over his eyes.

***

It all started early Friday evening after we had left Karout Grand Stores, a kind of Home Depot in South Beirut  that sells everything from power tools to lawn chairs. We bought a tent for cheap for our camping trip to Nahr Ibrahim (Abraham’s River). But we couldn’t leave without having one of the best shawermas in the city at Harkous Chicken. It proved to be a fateful last stop.

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The last photo I took in South Beirut at  Karout Grand Stores before being detained by Hezbollah.

Often referred to as a “Hezbollah stronghold” in the Western media, south Beirut is really just a regular densely populated working class neighborhood where the party is popular. One difference is a large number of checkpoints and draw bridges that have been installed at intersections following the raft of car bombings that happened there in 2013 and 2014. It’s an understandable measure that has pretty much ended the violence but also leads to huge traffic jams. As we we were waiting to get through an intersection, I saw an interesting insignia on a concrete road barricade.

It was similar to the ones seen throughout parts of central Beirut reconstructed by the massive real estate firm, Solidere:

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Concrete barricades in central Beirut deployed by Solidere

Deployed at construction sites, the barricades are branded and serve a marketing purpose. In this case bearing Solidere’s logo, with the word Beirut in colored font:

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And stamping it onto the barricades:

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Now what I found interesting was that Hezbollah also had established a reconstruction company after the end of the 2006 war, when Israeli bombs flattened an entire neighborhood and left some 20,000 people homeless. And in the rebuilding process, Hezbollah’s company “Wa’ad” (promise) also branded its logo on similar concrete barricades.

 

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Wa’ad logo

 

A major difference is that Solidere, established by Lebanon’s late billionaire prime minister, turned old Beirut into a luxury playground catering to the rich, erasing much of the past social fabric of a mixed income city center, while Hezbollah’s Waad rebuilt the neighborhood for the working class families that lived there and encouraged them to move back. I thought a picture of the Waad and Solidere logos– in the form of concrete blocks– would make an interesting image for a further comparison. So I quickly snapped a picture of the barricade next to my car without even sticking the camera out the window.  My passenger says he didn’t even see me take the photo, but someone else did. About a minute later as we finally got through the intersection, I heard a voice shout out, asking me to pull over.

Immediately, a man approached: “Please step out of the car. Give me your license and registration. Give me your phone,” he said calmly.

“I will erase the picture, no problem,” I offered, still holding on to my cell.

“Give me the phone!” he repeated sternly. Two other men circled around the side and I handed it to him. As I tried to explain why I took the photo, another man appeared on a scooter. The men ranged from late teens to middle-aged, all wearing civilian clothes: jeans, pants or T-shirts.  The man on the scooter carrying our phones and IDs in one hand, asked us to follow him. As he took off, I was still trying to explain to one of the younger men standing there. He held onto my arm as we pulled away and said “don’t worry, you guys will be fine.”

We followed the scooter for just a few blocks and were told to stop and park near an abandoned lot. We waited in the car for a few minutes until summoned and asked to come out. As we walked up to the parking lot, a steely eyed man with a dark brown complexion and wrist tattoo greeted us coldly. He asked us to follow him to some old portable offices stacked up in the corner of the lot. My friend, who has mild anxiety was beginning to panic. “I’m not going inside,” he murmured as we followed him. But our minder led us straight into the little compound and pulled back a dirty old curtain to reveal what looked like a storage/junk room; it was dark with no lights.

“Wait in here,” he ordered.

“I don’t want to go in there,” my friend–we’ll call him T– said.

The minder insisted that it was just procedure and left us. So we sat on the edge of the dark room, refusing to go inside. T popped an anti-anxiety pill, as a precaution if things got worse. Suddenly I felt horrible for taking the picture.

About 15 minutes later I was called in to one of the portable offices. A middle aged man with a baby face and  glasses asked me to have a seat. He wore a plaid button shirt. We will call him Hajj 1, because Hajj- a term of respect, was used by the men among each other as well as to address us . Hajj 1 began filling out a standard form and asked me usual questions and some extra ones:

-Name

-Occupation

-Father’s name

-Mother’s name

-Grandfather’s name

-Family registration number

-Residence

-Where are you from — i.e. my father’s village.

Then there was one more question:

“What are your politics?”

“How can you ask me that,” I said. “I don’t know how to answer you.”

He sighed and said: “This is Lebanon. You know everyone has politics.”

I said I don’t belong to a political party and that I was a critic of the political system and that I thought all  Lebanese politicians worked together. I told him how I cover real estate development and why I was interested in the sign. I told him I have criticized Solidere so much that people think I am pro-Hezbollah. (The late prime minister’s party and Hezbollah are political rivals.) I told him I write about internet and ancient ruins, also. He listened patiently. He asked when I had come to Lebanon, since earlier I said I had lived abroad.

“Do you want me to tell you my life story,” I said sincerely.  I looked at T who was waiting outside and he rolled his eyes. Haj 1 asked what other countries I had traveled to. “All of them,” I asked, jokingly. He didn’t flinch. I said many countries in Europe, like Italy.

Hajj 1 was flanked by the stern-faced young guy that let us in. We’ll call him Hajj 2. Both stared at me quietly and intently as I spoke.

Hajj 1 got up and began photocopying my documents on a small scanner and then made a phone call and left the room. Hajj 2 stayed and now acted reassuring. “We have trust in your story,” he said. “These are just procedures.”

Hajj 1 came back. He said it would only be a few minutes. I told him we were just going to eat sharawma at Harkous and that they have a buy two get one free special offer. He said: “Are you hungry? We can order whatever you want.” I declined thinking it would be over soon. Hajj 2 interrupted. “Soda? Juice?”

I kept talking, trying to convince them I was innocent. I even remembered the names of some Al Manar (Hezbollah TV) staff I had met before. I even once applied for a permit at Hezbollah’s media office when working on a documentary for Danish TV about the destruction of the 2006 war.  “All my information is already with Hezbollah, I said.

Hajj 1 nodded in silence. He looked at me and said: “Are you scared?” I said no. He added: “Are you comfortable?”

“Well….”

Hajj 1 smiled at Hajj 2 and then a third man showed up, also wearing jeans and an embroidered button shirt. We’ll call him Hajj 3. He greeted Hajj 1 with a kiss and a handshake and I thought he was just a guy passing by off the street to say hi. But Hajj 3 turned out to be a more significant player.

Hajj 3 asked my friend and I to follow him.

Without warning, he whipped out a small digital camera and told me to stand against the wall. I smiled and then I was serious. This was not a driver’s license photo. He brought the camera about 5 inches from my face. I later learned he had just done the same with T, having interrogated him in another room.

Hajj 3 then led the two of us into another portable office. To the right there was a small barracks with two army cots stacked up like a bunk bed. Hajj led us into a third room the size of a large closet with two chairs and a desk. He closed a rusted metal door behind us as I saw a man entering the barracks with a Kalashnikov rifle slung around his shoulder. He was not wearing a uniform either. Hajj 3 shut the door and sat behind the desk. T and I looked at each other. Things seemed to be going well but now we were confined to a drab claustrophobic space behind a metal door. Hajj 3 didn’t talk to us much. He sat behind the desk and appeared to be writing notes.

I tried explaining my story again, but Hajj 3 kept his baseball cap over his eyes, and the high desk blocked his face from me. He nodded.

Could we call our friends and family? Hajj 3 said, “I will talk to the Hajj”–meaning Hajj 1. “It should only be a few more minutes.” Finally Hajj 1 popped in the door. He asked T some questions and then left again, assuring us it would be a few minutes. Another hour passed by.

T and I tried to keep talking. T looked at Hajj 3 and asked. “So who are you guys? Does your division have a name? For example, if someone wanted to present you with a commemorative plaque, who would it be addressed to?”

I laughed and said, come on, “it’s known.” Hajj 3 cracked a half smile. “Really, guys I can’t tell you anything.” I kept talking. I told him about my investigations about telecom and ancient ruins being cleared, how the coast was literally being sold off to private companies. At some points he looked up and seemed to be curious. T said, come on, this guy has other things to worry about than corruption scandals. Hajj 3 cracked a smile briefly.  So T kept asking him.

“We want to know what you are concerned about. You know the situation in Lebanon. What do you think is going to happen?”

This time I rolled my eyes at T. Hajj shook his head and half smiled. But T kept going. “I mean, how does someone even apply for work with you?” I laughed. Hajj 3 got up. It seemed we were driving him nuts. “I’m sorry are we bothering you,” I asked. “No not at all,–Walou” Hajj 3 said as he stood up and opened the door. I joked that he was going to go home tonight and tell his family that some guys they detained asked him all these questions. He cracked a smile again, only briefly, turning away to hide his expression. I hoped we would get home to tell the story too, but as time passed by, I grew increasingly unsure about that.

It had now been over two hours. Earlier Hajj 3 repeatedly said it would only be a few minutes. Our friends had been waiting for us at the chicken restaurant. Hajj 3 sat back down behind the desk. “It’s taking a long time, ” he said. That didn’t sound good. I couldn’t think straight. I literally had eaten all day. I had back to back meetings then I had to pick up T from the airport. All this happened during his first few hours in Lebanon. I pleaded again to Hajj 3. He offered the food again. I told him I want Harkous chicken, he smiled and said: “What if I get you chicken and write Harkous on the receipt?” He smiled. “What about chips? Pepsi? Hajj 3 had already offered us water and cigarettes. I felt confused. One minute everyone was nice and wanted to help–the next minute there were long silences and no food ever arrived. Was this a psychological game? Where will they take us next?

Finally after nearly three hours, Hajj 1 showed up again with our IDs and phones in hand. He gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write down the website where I would write the article about comparing Wa’ad with Solidere. Now he was smiling. He then asked me to write down any other papers or media I work for. He handed our phones back and asked me to unlock mine to delete the pictures of the barricade. I protested but he insisted and I think T was about to kill me. I obliged and Hajj said I could apply to the Hezbollah media office to get that picture.

Finally, as we were getting up, T tried one last question as Hajj 1 stood before us. “So if our friends ask us, where should we tell them we were?”

Hajj 1 smiled. “At Hezbollah.”

Before we left, and now that I had my phone back, I wanted to show Hajj 1  a video a local TV station produced about a blog post I wrote that forced the New York Times to correct an article misquoting Hezbollah leader Nasrallah. As we walked out into the parking lot, I tried to open the video several times in vain.

“You are trying to open a video,” Hajj 1 said with a chuckle.  “God help you! The coverage is terrible here. You’ll wait an hour to load it. Once again, notoriously slow Lebanese internet would haunt me.

“Don’t worry about it, ” Hajj 1 said. “We’ll check your website. He apologized for the inconvenience and said “Nice to get to know you” and “If you ever need anything, give us a call.” T actually asked Haj 1 for his number and he gave him this strip of paper as a ‘business card’:

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Even reticent Hajj 3 was suddenly more talkative and mustered some broken English: “God-a blesss you.”

We shook all their hands and got back into the car.

Looking back at the experience, I have to say Hezbollah treated me far better than the corporate real estate developers that twisted my arms behind my back until I erased pictures of ancient ruins I saw on their site or the masked young hoodlums that belong to a Western-allied political movement who ran after me. Or the Lebanese government official who ripped away my voice recorder after our interview, erased all my audio files and threatened me in numerous ways. Yet in the South Beirut “Hezbollah stronghold”, never once did anyone shout or curse at us, threaten us with weapons or any sort of physical violence.

But it still wasn’t fun. Having your phone and personal data confiscated against your will is invasive and unnerving to say the very least. I’m also not sure it was the best use of my time or Hezbollah’s time to stop anyone who takes a photograph. On the other hand, with so many car bombs and regular threats of war from Israel, it’s not hard to understand why they might be a little bit paranoid.

Was my experience unique? A couple of weeks ago, a woman taking a photo in south Beirut claimed to have had it much rougher. She said the Hezbollah men had threatened and shouted at her, even put a gun to her head. At first I was horrified by the piece, but now I wonder if perhaps there was more to the story. Did she challenge the security men more than I had or more than she told the news channel, which convienently is staunchly anti-Hezbollah?  Was I treated better because I was a journalist? One journalist working for a major Western news organization claims to have been beaten and tortured by Hezbollah.

I can’t be sure why these accounts differ so greatly from mine. But amid all the wars Hezbollah is involved in, both T and I emerged with a sense of appreciation that things didn’t go worse. Moral of the story: Don’t take pictures in South Beirut. Is that good for journalism and transparency? Definitely not. But these are not ordinary times either.

 

0
… for the “Hawker” private security guard staring and squinting at me while taking this picture (because I haven’t shaved?) comes rushing toward me (bottom left)–tells me photos are illegal in front of the “mahal” /store (Starbucks) he is protecting.

“Do you want to call the police,” I ask, calmly reminding him he is not law enforcement.

“I don’t need to call the police,” he replies. “I will take the law into my own hands.”

Now there’s a nice story for the Starbucks “community engagement” wall. Following today’s “terror raid” at a Hamra hotel, maybe Hawker will start busting jihadists drinking Frappuccinos.

Ancient ruins removed this afternoon– archeologists say site could be up to 8,000 years old.
It started with a text message last week: 
“Hello, how are you? A friend told me they discovered an antique house while digging in Bechara el Khoury! It’s quite new it seems so maybe they didn’t have time to destroy it…”
Suddenly I remembered that I had seen white tents when driving through the new tunnel underpass at Bechara Khoury (near Sodeco)–which has been under construction for a couple of years now. I took these pictures a few months ago while driving past but didn’t know what to make of them:

So last weekend after getting the text message, I went down to get a closer look. By the time I had got the site it was dusk:
As I walked closer, I could see this:

It was not clear– from where I was standing on the street– what lay beneath the canvas, what had been buried beneath this busy intersection for centuries if not millennia before the recent tunnel excavation. Note the site is only a few meters below the broken old pavement from where I am standing.

From another angle, it appeared there could be objects or formations beneath:

I could also make out was seemed to be a cavern or hole-like structure. An entrance, a roof?

I had planned to come back during the day yesterday but I was caught up at work. So I could only make it back today. And it seemed I was just in time.
The big tent had suddenly been removed:

I went around the other side and a big crate was being lifted from the site:

And a second crate was ready to be hoisted up:

Both seemed to be lifted from the dig, which now looked partially emptied:

Then a woman appeared who seemed to be an archeologist or working on site. She ordered me not to take pictures and put her hand over my lens:

She said it was “forbidden” to take pictures. But why?

Here they were operating a massive crane, hoisting up vehicle sized packages and they expected no one to take pictures? No one living in the hundreds of apartments overlooking this major intersection? No one of the thousands of cars passing by? How could they police that?

“If I see anyone, I must stop them,” she said.

She explained briefly that the site could be up to 8,000 years old, a home or dwelling perhaps. But what is wrong with the public having a look?

“I wish you would have come yesterday, I could have explained the whole site to you.” But how was I or any journalist supposed to know about this site?

Even then pictures would not be allowed, she said. “Go get a permit from the directorate of antiquities,” she advised, frustrated by my questions.

So how would that work? Was she going to keep the ruins suspended in the air until how ever many hours, days or weeks it will take to navigate the Lebanese state bureaucracy and get “official”clearance?

I mean this was news happening in broad day light, massive ruins being hoisted by a massive crane. How can it be legal to ban photography of an open air event in the public domain?

She then argued that the government authorities would need to know “why” I wanted to take the pictures. What does that mean? That only journalists who intend to glorify the ministry get to cover events? Imagine how much news would not be covered if every time an event was happening in public, journalists would have to wait for a bureaucratic process which decides what kind of article they are going to write.

Imagine if no pictures were taken. How would people even know what events were going on to ask permission to cover them?

Worse still, if there is no transparency, no independent documentation of what has been found, how will the public even know the site exists, how will journalists ever know what questions to ask about it; how will authorities ever be held accountable, if no one can watch what they are doing?

Hearing our exchange several workers fanned around us, clearly taking her side and ready to stop me as well. (I have experience getting assaulted by such site workers so I stood my distance.) But surprisingly, one of the workers murmured: “just go take a shot from far away”.

So I did:

In that moment I felt lucky.
I just happened to come on the right day, at the right hour, enduring censorhsip and harassment to watch history lifted out of the ground for the first time in thousands of years:

With no transparency it is only through luck that you may find out what is happening. Unbelievably, the site staff continued to stare and yell at me from across the street. It is sad that some archeologists and the government have adopted this complete secrecy approach.

The idea is that the press will “hurt” their efforts by accusing them of theft. But it seems the opposite is true, that it is censorship, not openness that breeds paranoia and mistrust. As I got in a cab, leaving the site, I told the driver what happened.

His response: “They are thieves! They don’t want you to know what they are finding. Tomorrow they will sell them!”

It sounds like an exaggeration, but judging by the history of demolitions of ruins sites in Beirut, the columns we find used as coffee tables in the homes of the rich or the elaborate mosaics we see on the walls of the fancy private institutions or the Phoenician exhibits in foreign countries–the public has every right to be skeptical. And they have every right to know what is being dug up, who is digging it, who is paying for it and who decided it should be removed and how it will be displayed.

But as it stands, dozens of digs have gone on in the city, with almost nothing published for almost 10 years according to many archeologists I interviewed in a recent BBC piece. (See second part of piece for background.)

I believe the best way to build trust is to be open. Welcome the public, let them take pictures. Tell them what is going on, put pictures online. Let them get excited about their history. Isn’t that what every museum curator, every history teacher dreams of– for people to ask questions, for people line up at the door, to get interested and essentially, just have a look?

***

Thanks to Flo for the initial text message.


This column was first published in the April issue of Bold Magazine

A Thirst For Silence


By Habib Battah 

Conflict in Lebanon is often analyzed through the lens of simplistic dichotomies: pro-Syria and anti-Syria; pro Western and anti-Western, pro Hezbollah or anti-Hezbollah. But more often than not, Lebanon’s feuding politicians – many of them former warlords – have a lot in common and an increasingly common enemy: criticism and critical thought. 

Today politicians on both sides of the political divide are suing journalists and news publications. From the pro-Western March 14 party, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi is taking Al Akhbar newspaper to court over an editorial that mocked Lebanon’s president and asked him to leave office. Following the president’s criticism of Hezbollah military policies, the paper’s editor accused the president of “moral treason” and said his portrait hung in public offices was “an insult to all the Lebanese…” In defense of the lawsuit, Minister Rifi tweeted that the “time for insulting and debauchery has come to an end” and he pledged to “build a state where everyone is under the law.” 

But the idea that a singular minister will decide on what amounts to jail-able “debauchery” runs contrary to the very notion of equality under the rule of law. And if all Lebanese citizens are to be treated equally, why then is the president exempt from criticism according to the archaic Lebanese penal code? In fact it is publications loyal to Minister Rifi’s political associates that have regularly chastised Hezbollah with similar language. One broadcaster even called for the overthrow of the prime minister, leading a crowd of protesters toward his offices during a 2012 protest, urging them to take the building by force in clashes that injured several police officers. But no case was brought against him by the state. Where was the minister of justice then? 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Hezbollah-affiliated minister of energy is now suing Executive magazine for a story it ran with quotes from the minister himself. Executive had asked Minister Gebran Bassil about $33 million of revenues generated from the sale of seismic data revealing Lebanon’s potential offshore oil reserves. Executive dutifully printed Mr. Bassil’s reported answer: “You are asking questions I am not really aware of, about details that are not really important.” It is not clear on what basis Bassil can sue the magazine for using such a quote, but he has not denied saying it in a lengthy response issued to Executive following the initial article’s publication. In fact, in all 10 paragraphs of the rebuttal issued by the Energy ministry – and re-printed by Executive – the figure of $33 million does not appear once, save for a vaguely worded sentence that states Petroleum Administration budget funds “shall be deposited in an account at the Central Bank.” But there are no details as to exactly how much or when the amount will be deposited. 

Executive had also asked Minister Bassil about the yet-to-be published environmental impact assessment of pumping oil off the Lebanese coast, but that document was also not produced, according to the magazine. 

So does a minister have a right to sue a news organization for asking questions? Do the Lebanese people not have a right to know both specific details about their natural resources, the environmental impact of drilling and the minister’s specific answers when asked about those issues? Or is it being suggested that the media should not only self censor itself but also self censor the comments that have come out of politicians’ own mouths? 

Of course the threats faced by Lebanese media have not been restricted to legal action, but also entail physical violence. When a crew from Al Jadeed TV attempted to investigate allegations of millions of dollars in corruption at the Lebanese Customs administration late last year, they were reportedly denied an interview and thus resorted to asking for one over a megaphone outside his office. It wasn’t long before a crowd of armed security agents stormed the crew, breaking the megaphone and punching and kicking them in broad daylight, with all of the action caught on camera. The reporters were subsequently arrested but released hours later after a huge crowd had gathered outside the justice palace demanding their release. 

Attacks on those who challenge authority are not limited to the mainstream press. Several bloggers have been questioned over recent weeks and months by the state’s “cyber crimes” unit. Among the offenders are blog posts that have raised questions about unfair treatment of workers at a major supermarket chain and others that have covered questionable business practices at a pyramid investment scheme and an award show that charges participants exorbitant fees for prize collection. One popular twitter user was recently sentenced to two months in prison for insulting the president, in a ruling akin to punishments in autocratic Arab monarchies that have been uncommon in Lebanon where speech is relatively less regulated. 

Fortunately there is a silver lining to all this. As worrying as attacks on free expression have been, equally significant is the defiant reaction from those accused. By and large, bloggers have publicized their experiences in detail, stood by their posts and drawn hordes of supporters even among mainstream media outlets. National broadcaster LBC for example aired a tongue-in cheek-interview last month with one of the interrogated bloggers, introducing him nonchalantly as a “digital criminal.” The smiling host then preemptively and politely interrupts the blogger each time he begins answering a question. First she asks he not speak about the president, then the courts, then the customs authorities, then corruption, then Lebanese politics and political parties in general and of course religion. “Is there anything left to talk about,” he asks sheepishly. The host smiles and abruptly ends the show, adding: “This has been a very beneficial interview.” 

Meanwhile the beaten Al Jadeed TV crew has pressed on with its quest for answers from customs authorities and repeatedly played the video of agents assaulting its journalists, slowing down each frame and naming and shaming the officers involved. Printed press have also stood their ground, keeping the questionable articles available online. Al Akhbar has gone as far as laughing in the face of the state, challenging it to a battle in the courts and printing similarly-toned subsequent editorials, one in which the paper’s editor dares the state to sue, ending with “take your best shot.” Executive magazine, on the other hand has welcomed a trial as yet another chance to question the energy minister’s record and thanking him for it: “You have given us the opportunity to interrogate you on all your practices over the past five years in power. We will see you in court,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief recently wrote. 

Considering the amount of angst they have generated, one wonders if Lebanon’s politicians will backtrack on their lawsuits. The attention they have created has only cast new light on unanswered questions and potential abuses of power. It has also exponentially popularized the blog posts, tweets and news articles that have so offended them. But this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Lebanon’s government institutions are notoriously opaque as are the business holdings of individual politicians, many of whom are millionaires and billionaires. This is in addition to the government salaries and benefits they enjoy, which are over ten times average wages. Plus parliament only met twice in 2013, once to extend its mandate by delaying elections by over a year, a move seen as unconstitutional by many legal analysts. 

Yet even if the court cases do not see the light, that politicians are now pursuing such trivial issues may reveal a new power landscape where even in militia-ruled Lebanon, the richest and most powerful are increasingly on the defensive, challenged not just by the power of the mainstream press, but even by a short blog post or a 140-character tweet.

***


Watch the LBC clip mocking the press crackdown:





AUB engineering students have arranged a rare question and answer session with the mayor of Beirut over the most controversial civil works project in recent memory, but the media and activists have been barred from attending.
As noted in the event’s “about” section, only AUB students and faculty will be able to attend, effectively banning any news coverage or tough questions from activists who have been following the issues closely:
Now I have been to dozens of AUB lectures and conferences over the past ten years–at the departments of public policy, architecture, Middle East studies and many others. They have all been wonderful, insightful and free and open to the public.
This is the first time I have seen such an aggressive banning of public participation from journalists, students and faculty from other universities as well as experts and outside members of the community. Is this unprecedented or very rare in the history of AUB? Shouldn’t the residents of Beirut–not just students of an elite university– have access to their mayor?
When asked by one of many architects that have spoken out about recent municipality plans, how such a ban would be enforced, one of the student organizers suggested IDs would be checked at the door to the lecture hall:
Now how often do you hear that at AUB? When asked why the students were taking such an aggressive policy, no direct answers were provided. One suggested this was student policy and commented “check the website” but there is no mention on the Civil Engineering Society website that such a policy exists and it appears that it has not been implemented at past CES events.
So why the restrictions and what is different this time? In fact, this is not the first time activists have been shut out of municipality meetings.
The mayor is scheduled to speak about the now infamous Boutros Road, a four-lane tunnel and bridge system that will pummel through one of the city’s greenest neighborhoods and destroy up to 30 historic buildings and green properties.
Activists block Armenia road during a march for a park last month
Architects and urban planning experts from Harvard, AUB and other prestigious institutions have opposed the $75 million plan. Not only will it destroy some of the city’s few remaining green and pedestrian areas, it may also cause increased traffic jams by putting added pressure on congested roadways, multiple experts told me in an investigative piece I wrote last year for The Daily Star.
At the time, the municipality refused to divulge plans for the project, curtailing any public discussion by independent analysts or members of the community. In fact, after waiting for two weeks for the documents I was told by government officials that: “the consultant working on it had to leave for an emergency.”


So it was with great surprise last November that the deputy mayor of Beirut announced during an international AUB conference that the municipality was very transparent and had held a “Town Hall meeting” to engage the public in its planning efforts. 

I was surprised because I had never heard such a meeting took place and neither had some of the largest activist groups in Beirut including Save Beirut Heritage and the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage.
I approached deputy mayor Nadim Abu Rizk after his short presentation and asked how someone like myself might get invited to such a meeting. I also asked if very visible groups like SBH and APLH had been invited. “I don’t think so,” he said. Asked who then was invited: “I consulted my friends,” who sent out emails to all the ‘concerned experts’.
So it turns out the Town Hall meeting the municipality had been touting before international experts at AUB last year, was actually an “invite-only” meeting and the most prominent activist groups who have proposed alternatives to the road were not invited.
And among those that did attend the meeting, there were reports of time constraints and exclusion of any detailed discussion.
“A serious and real discussion between the municipality and the participants was not conducted,” wrote the youth organization Nahnoo in a letter to the deputy mayor on its website.
“… it didn’t leave us time to conduct a discussion concerning the topics represented,” it said, adding that media coverage was scant and “only certain people” were allowed to participate in the discussion.
Was this a genuine attempt to engage the public, or was it merely an attempt to create a media image that “the civil society was present” Nahnoo asked.
Giving credence to the later explanation, the head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government body which is undertaking the Boutros project, told me:
 
“Usually we don’t build public consensus on projects. It’s never happened since I’ve been here since 1996.”
 
The same official also told me that there was “no need” for an environmental impact study because there were “no flora or fauna” in the area:
One of Beirut’s last farms which, like many green spaces, falls in the path of the Boutros project. Activists want to build a park here.
Also despite recent ‘engagement’ statements, the municipality has completely rejected a plan proposed by activists and urban planners to build a park in the place of the highway, to better serve the community. Such plans have been adopted by municipalities around the world, argues Hashim Sarkis the Agha Khan Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard. In a recent essay he gives multiple examples of alternatives to the road and writes that the municipality plans:
“…reveal an outdated understanding of the contemporary city and administrative thinking that is out of touch with solutions being used worldwide and with the ambitions of Beirut’s citizens and their right to the city.”
He adds:
“Unfortunately, the problems with the Fouad Boutros Axis project persist… no matter how much lipstick the city puts on this pig of a project.”
Interestingly the plans for a park were initially included in the latest AUB event flyer:
But these were swiftly removed by the “CES student society” in favor of a more flattering image of the mayor, divorced from the controversy:
Why all the fuss about how the event is presented and who attends? Is there a desire to please those at the top?
Finally, despite the municipality’s insistence on its plan, it was announced that it would break ground in “summer 2013”. But now, several months later, the municipality says it is engaging in a new study that won’t be ready until the end of summer 2014. There are few details on how this study was commissioned or how much it will cost. But the delay of over one year is substantial. Did the questions and protests of activists play a role in this possible backtracking?

2
Dubai’s Creative Chill


This column first appeared in the March issue of Bold Magazine

THE ARRESTS OF SHEZANNE CASSIM AND DOZENS OF OTHERS OVER INNOCUOUS SOCIAL MEDIA INTERACTIONS – SOME SATIRICAL, SOME EXPLICITLY CRITICAL – CREATE A CHILLING EFFECT ACROSS DUBAI’S CREATIVE INDUSTRIES, EVEN AS THE EMIRATE TRIES TO SELL ITSELF AS A CENTER FOR THE ARTS. SUCH INTOLERANCE THREATENS THE CITY-STATE’S LONG-TERM STABILITY 

By Habib Battah

S

hezanne Cassim is a name the rulers of Dubai would probably like to forget. For months, the 29-year-old American was held in a remote maximum security prison, one reserved for threats to national security. CNN correspondent Sarah Sidner drove past the desert facility, after government officials had refused to talk to her. Local and regional media largely ignored the case, so it was surprising that CNN Abu Dhabi, which frequently offers complimentary coverage of the monarchy, would cover the story. In fact, the only Emirati that spoke to the network went to jail shortly after Sidner’s piece was aired. 

Even Cassim, a Sri-Lankan American who grew up in Dubai and worked as a consultant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, was not aware of the charges against him until five months after he was incarcerated by UAE police. Finally, after nearly nine months in jail, he was convicted earlier this year for “defaming the UAE.” The offense was a 20-minute YouTube spoof film he had made that playfully mocked Emirati street fighting culture. In one skit, locals use their agala, the black rope that fastens a headdress in its place, as a weapon. (This was actually not far from the truth as last year an Emirati was filmed beating a migrant worker mercilessly with his agala on the side of the highway. The man who shot the humiliating episode on his phone and uploaded to YouTube was also jailed.) 

But Cassim was more fortunate than the scores of human rights activists languishing in UAE prisons over their social media interactions. His family in the US mounted a social media campaign, with hashtag #FreeShez, and enlisted the help of US lawmakers, attorneys and government officials. Major Hollywood actors also came to Cassim’s defense, including Will Ferrell, who created a video demanding his release with the cast of US television show “Funny or Die.” Sure enough, two weeks later, and despite his recent conviction, Cassim was released for time already served. Amusingly the UAE judge ordered that copies of the film be “confiscated,” perhaps not realizing the existence of YouTube or that trial publicity helped garner the spoof film over half a million views. 

In an interview with the BBC, UAE prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called the incident a “mistake,” adding: “We are not perfect and we try to change it… we are doing our best.” But Maktoum stopped short of apologizing for taking away nine months of Cassim’s life or for jailing or sentencing seven others that worked on the film, including Europeans and North Americans who were convicted in absentia. Little is also known about the fate of Emirati activist Obaid Al-Zaabi, who appeared in the CNN report, or the 22-year-old unnamed Indian who shot the cell phone video that may have helped inspire Cassim’s spoof. 

Equally disturbing about the affair is the chilling effects it will have on creativity in the UAE, which is trying to sell itself as a center for the arts with its star-studded film festivals, production cities and bids to open branches of New York University and the Louvre museum. 

Writing in The Guardian after his release, Cassim questioned why Dubai authorities had not sued the producers of major Hollywood movies such as George Clooney’s “Syriana” or Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible,” which were shot in Dubai (presumably with lots of local help) and yet portrayed Gulf states as a “politically corrupt breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.” 

“The authorities supported and feted those movies, even though they portray the country as a paradise for international criminals, but I was imprisoned, deported and banned from returning to the UAE for a novice comedy-sketch…” Cassim wrote. 

On Facebook, I asked several Lebanese friends and colleagues working in Dubai about the case while Cassim was still in prison and astonishingly, many of them defended the government ruling. 

One friend, a creative writer for a major ad agency, put it bluntly: “Most people (expats and locals) living here don’t need to question the royal families … because at the end of the day, they are provided with a good lifestyle.” 

Another colleague, a marketing manager for large brands, suggested a more troubling view: 

“I do support such rulings… No one forced people to come to the UAE. They want to come, let them respect the laws of the country…. A nation is protected when it has clear laws, regardless of what they are.” He added: “Those living abroad prefer to focus on more important things relating to their work and lives than spend it criticizing a nation that is putting food on their table every single day…” 

But how could punitive limits on creative expression be divorced from “daily lives,” particularly when you work in a creative industry? Perhaps my friends fear they will wind up like over 100 Emirati human rights lawyers and activists that have been jailed, many for the interactions on social media, according to the Emirates Center for Human Rights. But have they even heard of those prisoners? How many local or Arab media outlets have publicized their cases? 

The UAE is not alone. The region’s prisons are full of filmmakers, activists bloggers and journalists. In Egypt for example, three Al Jazeera journalists have been in jail since last year simply because their coverage was seen as sympathetic to the opposition. The trial has probably received more attention from the foreign press than regional outlets, which it may affect most. And before we rush to label this as an “Arab phenomenon,” let’s not forget that a US congressman threatened to throw a reporter off the balcony and cut him “in half,” in a conversation that was caught on tape earlier this year. Astonishingly, the reporter accepted the politician’s apology. Was he worried about rocking the boat? And what if that conversation was not caught on tape? How many threats or intimidation tactics do journalists face on a daily basis that are not accidentally recorded? How often do they self-censor themselves, preemptively? 

Our conditioned acceptance of intimidation is the lasting consequence of harassment. Cassim may be free now but how many will dare satire Dubai in the future? Yes there may be plenty of jobs today, but what about when the oil wealth runs dry? How will the UAE build a media industry to compete with global players if it cannot laugh at itself or produce humor, the basis of the entertainment industry? 

Dubai has recently won hosting rights to the Expo 2020 international exhibition. Its leaders speak constantly about aspirations to create a city of the future, launching a dizzying array of “world-class” initiatives in education, health care, green energy, architecture, finance, even space exploration. But what about when those leaders are gone? What future is there without public participation, through public institutions? And what institutions can be built without accountability or transparency? As it stands today, will anyone dare question how the courts work or how public money is spent? 

The chilling effect, the willingness to stay silent without being asked, is a serious long-term danger, not just for business. Have a look around the region and it’s painfully clear that bottling up dissent does not bode well for long-term stability, which is what is needed to put food on the table.

***

Watch the video that landed Cassim in jail here: 

 


This column was originally published in this month’s issue of Bold Magazine.

Detained And Restrained

REPORTING IN LEBANON CAN BE A DANGEROUS BUSINESS THESE DAYS WITH GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS, POLITICAL PARTISANS AND PRIVATE COMPANIES OFTEN HARASSING JOURNALISTS AND MUZZLING THEM IF THEY SPEAK OUT. HABIB BATTAH RECOUNTS HIS OWN RECENT RUN-IN WITH AUTHORITY, AND HOW HIS COMPLAINT ABOUT A PREVIOUS INCIDENT WAS USED AGAINST HIM 

By Habib Battah

You are not with the BBC,” the senior government official said, looking me in the eye as he seized my digital recorder. “I’m calling security,” he added, rushing back behind his desk. He then deleted everything on my recorder, even a previous interview. 

We had been talking on a couch in his office for about 10 minutes when the outburst occurred, just as I began to ask some sensitive questions. Taken aback, he asked for my full name — as he had not bothered to do so when agreeing to the interview. 

Lividly he picked up the phone to call his “boss,” a cabinet minister. “Your excellency, I have Habib Battah here, you know the one who made so many problems for us. He pretended to be BBC. What should I do with him?” 

The official then shot a maniacal look at me. “We know all about you and about the police report you made.” 

His reference was to a police report I had filed several months earlier after being physically assaulted by a group of men at a Beirut construction site where ancient ruins were uncovered and being dismantled. The men had surrounded me after taking a picture of the ruins, believed by activists to belong to the 2,000-year-old Hellenistic era of ancient Berytus. 

When I refused to erase the picture, the men and their supervisors locked me inside the giant construction walls of the development and proceeded to twist my arms behind my back until I agreed to delete the photos. Eventually I was freed after being cursed and threatened, all in plain view of the offices of the multi-million dollar project, run by prominent Lebanese businessmen. 

I would have never imagined at the time that exercising my right to inform the police about this harrowing assault and illegal detainment would be held against me months later by none other than a government official. 

It all felt like a scene from one of those thriller police films where the good guys turn out to be the bad guys. Suddenly you are an enemy of the state, so who will you call for help? 

After a few minutes on the phone with the minister, the official suddenly began to change his tone. 

“You and I can become good friends,” he said. “We can even go for a beer, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.” The only condition, he explained, was that I read certain articles — “the good articles they have written about us” — and consult him before publishing anything. Otherwise “You will lose a lot.” As he walked me to the door he added: 

“There are many tests you need to pass. You are not the first person to go through them, and the test is not easy.” 

I left his office with a feeling of deep unease. It was a truly schizophrenic experience. One minute he was calling security, the next minute he wanted to be my drinking buddy. What did he mean by “You will lose a lot?” Was this official capable of violence? How closely was I being monitored? What was the connection between the officials and the developer I had so angered by documenting our ancient, shared history? 

It is not the first time I have been harassed while reporting the news. A group of crazed Future Movement supporters once ran toward me in ski masks and attempted to break my camera during demonstrations in 2011. I have also had my footage deleted by members of Hezbollah during the 2007 sit-in in downtown Beirut. 

And yet these experiences pale in comparison to the story of Rami Aysha, a Time magazine reporter who said he was detained and severely beaten last year both by Hezbollah and Lebanese security agents, according to testimonies he provided to Reporters Without Borders and The Committee to Protect Journalists. 

While Aysha’s case got a lot of attention, there are countless others that fly under the radar of major organizations. I know several journalists in Lebanon who have been beaten or detained but have refused to tell their stories for fear of the consequences. And that is one of the worst effects of all: self-censorship. 

There is a reason why many Lebanese journalists avoid investigative reporting and why so little in Lebanon is investigated. Even I fear revealing the name of the official described above. If I do, he may shut down access to my reporting by pulling strings with his contacts. With no independent judicial system, to whom can I complain? 

Still these cases need to be documented, and the public should take an interest in the lives of its storytellers. With time, perhaps more of us will have the confidence to speak out.

0
That’s Riad Kobessi, an investigative journalist and one of three Al Jadeed TV crew members who were savagely beaten by Lebanese Customs security today.
A large crowd had gathered outside the Justice Palace this afternoon where all four were held and interrogated until being released around 9PM tonight. As you can see in the photo above, Kobessi has a large scare on his face following the beating he endured hours earlier. I took this shot moments after his release when he was quickly ushered into one of the Al Jadeed vehicles standing by.
I’ll have more on this tomorrow, but for now you can check my twitter feed for videos and pictures of the beating and the rally that pressured their release. Kobessi and his crew paid a price, but it was a victory for all journalists in Lebanon tonight, even those who might not have appreciated it.
UPDATE: Nov. 28
Lebanon’s internet is so slow that I couldn’t upload these videos last night. So here’s a taste of what it was like in the crowd. Moments before the journalists are released, supporters chant, “Freedom! Freedom”

Here is a shot from inside the crowd, showing both young men and women shouting in support:

Finally the moment of truth, as the gates are opened and the journalists released:

Skyscraper City 

Looks I like I was not the only reporter to get manhandled or threatened by the DistrictS site crew.

Here’s what happened to The Daily Star:

And here are some tweets from Reuters journalist, Oliver Holmes:

@habib_b I can tell you what they did. Just took a bunch of photos. (also got the mandatory arm attack by one of the builders)
— Oliver Holmes (@olireports) May 15, 2013

@habib_b Look at photos on previous tweets. Saw 3 bulldozers working to remove ruins. Took a picture from the side and a builder grabbed me.
— Oliver Holmes (@olireports) May 15, 2013

 

@habib_b he radioed other men but managed to get away.
— Oliver Holmes (@olireports) May 15, 2013