Saturday, March 16, 2013

Journalist deportation violates 'dissociation', press freedom

[Originally posted at NOW]

For journalists risking their lives to cover the war in Syria under indiscriminate aerial and artillery fire, as well as the ubiquitous threat of kidnapping, the moment of touching down at Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri airport ought to be one of relief.

Yet, for one European reporter last weekend, the ordeal was not to conclude so soon. Arriving from Amman after a stint in Aleppo Province, the journalist – who requested anonymity – was detained and questioned for twelve hours by airport authorities (known as General Security) before being denied entry and deported.

His offense, he was told, was having a stamp on his passport issued by the Free Syrian Army – stamping passports being an increasingly common practice for journalists traveling through rebel-held territory. A “political decision” had been made, General Security informed him, to refuse him entry. He was given no further explanation.

According to General Security media affairs director General Munir Aqiqi, the journalist was denied entry for reasons of “higher state interests” (in Arabic: “المصلحة العليا للدولة”) – a broad and sometimes controversial legal principle, analogous to the French raison d’État, that was also recently used to reject a draft law allowing women to pass their nationality on to their children.

Aqiqi would not confirm to NOW whether there was any specific policy to deny all entrants with such stamps, though he argued the stamps were invalid because, “There is no state called ‘Free Syrian Army’.” He also claimed the journalist had no available press credentials or other evidence of his profession – a claim denied by the journalist, who told NOW, “They did not question my profession. They actually have a copy of my press card.”

In either case, General Security’s decision constitutes a clear violation of press freedom, according to Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir Eyes (SKEyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom

“As long as there is no printed legal text that is published in the official gazette, decisions like this are illegal,” he told NOW. “It’s not like a discretionary decision. A law has to exist.”

Mhanna also took issue with the application of the ‘higher state interests’ principle. “The mere fact that [General Security] says this is for the ‘higher interests of the state’ is ridiculous. Are [they] saying that journalists pose a threat to this?”

“Unfortunately, we’re back to these very vague, very elastic expressions that can have so many different meanings, and the point is there is absolutely no legal document that justifies or sanctions such a decision.” Mhanna added that SKEyes would be following up the case with General Security and issuing a statement of condemnation.

Lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Saqr also told NOW the “higher state interests” principle, which he described as “very vague and very broad,” had likely been misused in this case. “This law has to be used under the control of the courts. If the government enforces it, the court must decide afterward whether the higher interests of the state were truly at risk.”

Accordingly, Saqr even suggested that the journalist might have a valid legal case against the government. “This is the type of situation where I think he could go to the courts. Legally I think he might win the case, because in view of the circumstances, the Free Syrian Army is a de facto authority now on the border checkpoints that are under its control. If he can justify that he has suffered damages, and he sued the state for that, he might win. But this would take many years, of course.”

The legal pretext was further derided by political analysts. “National security is not at stake here,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “If the presence of an opposition figure or someone who has links to the opposition in one way or another is a breach of the sovereignty and security of Lebanon, then definitely somebody must look into the activities of the Syrian ambassador and the regime itself,” he told NOW.

As such, Salamey argues the decision calls into question the government’s declared policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict. “This tells us that the government of Lebanon is not neutral in the Syrian conflict. It’s obviously taking sides by recognizing the stamp of the Assad regime and not the stamp of the Free Syrian Army. Neutrality means being equally distant from both sides, which is obviously not the case here.”

To the extent NOW has been able to ascertain, this journalist’s case is the first of its kind. NOW spoke to several foreign journalists based in Beirut who have also had their passports stamped by the Free Syrian Army, and none reported facing any problems returning to the country.

Nevertheless, given the experience of the journalist in this case, those planning to work in Syria may be advised to take new precautions. NOW learned from other reporters that the Free Syrian Army will agree to stamp a slip of paper instead of a passport if requested. Others have opted to use multiple passports, where available.

And if more such cases occur, others still will inevitably begin to avoid Lebanon as a place of work.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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