Friday, September 28, 2012

Freedom of suppression: Fears for press freedom if alleged Hezbollah attack blows over

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The release on bail Wednesday of a jailed Lebanese-Palestinian journalist may herald the end of what a local watchdog described as one of the worst violations of press freedom of its kind in Lebanon for years.

Rami Aysha, who has freelanced for international publications including Time, was reportedly investigating an arms smuggling story in Beirut’s southern suburbs on August 30 when he was detained and then imprisoned for almost a month without charge. Though an initial report by Al-Manar television station said Aysha was arrested by army intelligence, a letter received by the Committee to Protect Journalists by concerned colleagues alleged the arrest was in fact carried out by members of Hezbollah, which has a strong presence in the southern suburbs. The letter further alleged that Aysha was “severely beaten” by Hezbollah members, who inflicted on him two black eyes – an account corroborated by Aysha’s brother Ramzi, who visited him in a Byblos prison and reported that he had a broken finger and had been beaten on the head with his own camera. Al-Manar is run by Hezbollah, the press office of which could not be reached for comment.

It took almost three weeks for an official charge to be made against Aysha. On September 19, his lawyer, Saliba al-Hajj, informed the Samir Kassir Eyes (SKEyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom that Aysha was accused of attempting to smuggle arms himself – a charge both Hajj and Ramzi Aysha denied when contacted by NOW Lebanon.

Ayman Mhanna, SKEyes’ executive director, told NOW Lebanon that a serious violation has occurred either way. “If Aysha was arrested because of his work as a journalist, then his arrest was totally unacceptable and totally illegal, because there is absolutely nothing in Lebanese law that justifies this. And even if he was arrested for other reasons, what his brother and lawyer said about his beating is also totally unacceptable, and we demand an official, public and transparent investigation and trial of those responsible.”

Lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr agrees, though he cautions that the legal question hinges on the charges raised against Aysha. “A journalist cannot be arrested for simply doing his job, though he can be sued, let’s say, for defamation. In Lebanese law we have something called ‘crimes by publication,’ but again, one cannot be arrested for these,” he told NOW.

“If, however, a journalist is caught committing a crime – carrying out intelligence work for Israel, for example – then of course he can be arrested,” he added.

Should the charges against Aysha prove false, Sakr says he would have several courses of legal action available to him. “If he has been arrested beyond the normal period of arrest according to the law, he could sue for illegal detention. And if he has been subject to false charges by a third party, then he can sue also for false claims. But this would have to wait until the end of the trial, if there is one.”

However, neither Aysha nor his lawyer appears willing to pursue such a course of action. “Even though we feel that no one has the right to arrest Rami but the Lebanese state, what happened, happened. Unless something new comes up, we will not do anything,” Ramzi Aysha said.

“What can we do against the army and Hezbollah?” asked Hajj rhetorically. “All that we can do in this country is pray.”

Accordingly, Mhanna believes Aysha’s case will have detrimental consequences for press freedom in Lebanon. “Though we at SKEyes have witnessed and reported dozens of violations of press freedom in recent years, there has been nothing as severe as this for at least two years,” he said. “We are shocked that we all had to wait for two weeks before this issue became slightly public, and it’s still not getting the public and media attention it deserves. The idea of arresting a journalist during the course of his work and resorting to physical aggression, regardless of any charge, is unacceptable. And the practice of holding someone for a long time without charges is another thing that needs to stop in Lebanon.”

The case also shines a spotlight on Hezbollah, a party with a history of obstructing press freedom in areas under its control. “Last year we reported at least five cases of journalists being detained by Hezbollah and having their photos deleted and so on, all of which we documented in our Annual Report on Press and Cultural Freedom,” said Mhanna. Indeed, NOW Lebanon has in the past had notes confiscated and been prevented from reporting by Hezbollah members in the southern suburbs.

That such behavior may now be escalating into physical attacks on journalists sets a worrying precedent for press freedom, says Mhanna. “Hezbollah members are in no position to conduct any arrests of any citizens, let alone journalists, and let alone beating them in the process. If we open this Pandora’s Box, then all parties will start conducting these arrests.

“We’ll be back to the law of the jungle.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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