North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

In Lebanon, journalists report attacks and a decline in freedom of speech

Three reporters speak out about being subject to assaults from supporters of the country's major political parties

Marwa Harb
3 March 2021, 12.49pm
Many say freedom of speech has declined in Lebanon since the nation's 2019 protests
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dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Lebanon once prided itself on being a beacon of freedom of expression in the region. But recently, journalists and activists have been facing increasing verbal and physical threats, in some cases amounting to death threats, from supporters of the country’s major political parties.

The recent assassination of publisher and activist Lokman Slim on 4 February in southern Lebanon is the latest episode. Though the killer is still unknown, some allege that the powerful Lebanese Shiite party, Hezbollah, is behind Slim’s death. Slim has openly opposed the party, and its supporters have made death threats against him in the past.

Mariam Seif El Dine is a Lebanese journalist known for being a strong critic of the Lebanese political elite and major political parties, especially Hezbollah.

Her ordeal with the powerful party started during the mass protests that swept the country in October 2019, when people took to the streets across the country to protest against corruption and new proposed taxes. At the time, Seif El Dine was working as a journalist for the local daily, Nidaa el Watan, often criticizing Hezbollah in her articles and on social media.

“The entire political establishment in Lebanon should be opposed for the damage it has caused the country and the people,” Seif El Dine explained. This is particularly the case for Hezbollah, which she said “played an important role in suppressing the protests in Lebanon, especially in the Southern suburbs of Beirut”.

Beirut is a divided city. Districts are often split on a sectarian basis and neighborhoods are often controlled by political and sectarian parties

On 18 September 2020, Seif El Dine was covering the gruesome murder of a teenage girl in an abandoned apartment in Bourj Al Barajneh, a neighborhood in the Southern suburbs of Beirut. “There were signs that some powerful people from the area were trying to cover up the crime, and they were not happy that I was writing about it,” Seif El Dine recalled.

On 2 November, Seif El Dine’s brothers were assaulted in front of her house, in Bourj Al Barajneh, by people she believes are Hezbollah loyalists. This attack was followed by more threats.

She believes that her coverage of the teenage girl’s story was the reason her and her family were attacked.

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Mariam Seif El Dine holds a sign reading "down with the police state" | with permission from Mariam Seif El Dine

A month later, on 5 December, another attack followed. Hezbollah supporters tried to break the security cameras the family had installed. The attackers broke her brother’s nose and threatened the family, telling them to leave the neighborhood or else they would be killed.

Seif El Dine is no stranger to the southern suburbs, where Hezbollah has a strong influence. “This is where I used to live, so I know the problems they have created and how they treat people who are against them,” she said.

Beirut is a divided city. Districts are often split on a sectarian basis and neighborhoods are often controlled by political and sectarian parties.

After the attack, Seif El Dine and her family were forced to leave their house and moved to another neighborhood where the Shiite party has no influence.

Official collusion

After the attack, Seif El Dine claims the police told her there is no need for them to come unless someone is dead or wounded. She saw this as collusion by the police officers in the neighborhood, who she claims are under the control of Hezbollah.

Lebanese Internal Security Forces claimed in a tweet that they are following Seif El Dine's case. She claims that when she went to the police station to report the attackers, she was instead interrogated under the charge of defamation and slander by the attackers.

Seif El Dine’s case became a matter of public opinion and received media attention. The Press Syndicate, she said, gave her no support: “the syndicate does not really serve the new generation of journalists and has done almost nothing to support and protect them.”

openDemocracy tried to reach the Press Syndicate for a comment, but received no response.

“This is why freedom of speech in the country is getting worse,” Seif El Dine added. This was noticeable during the 2019 protests, when multiple attacks by security forces and thugs against journalists covering the protests were documented.

The Legal Agenda published testimonies from 11 journalists who were assaulted by members of the Internal Security Forces or from supporters of political parties. Attacks included physical assault, breaking of equipment, or even the distribution of journalists’ phone numbers in order to bully and threaten them.

Jad Shahrur, media officer at the Skies Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, explained that before the Lebanese protests, violations against journalists mostly had to do with legal prosecutions for slander and defamation, “but today the infringements have taken a direct violent form”.

Cyberbullying

Violence against journalists is not only physical, but online as well. Bots and multiple accounts are unleashed on journalists and activists who speak out against the political elite.

This was the case of the freelance journalist, Luna Safwan, who received threats from accounts supporting the two major Shiite parties in the country, Hezbollah and Amal Movement. When one of her tweets criticizing Hezbollah was retweeted by an Israeli news channel at the end of October last year, an online campaign was launched against her accusing her of collaborating with Israel, which is considered treason under Lebanese law.

Online attackers often resort to bullying rather than arguing with reason, if they are men, they dismiss you as a woman

Safwan explained that “online attackers often resort to bullying rather than arguing with reason, if they are men, they dismiss you as a woman. Myself being from the Shiite community, they also try to highlight how I am opposing my sect as if this was a sin.”

“Many made fun of my looks, calling me ‘fat’. And even sending outright or indirect [death] threats in the form of GIFs of cats exploding for example.”

Safwan believes that these attacks and campaigns are coordinated. “I am lucky that I have been working to become an accredited media trainer who can support other journalists and human rights defenders precisely to develop strategies that reduce the impact of similar attacks,” she explained.

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Luna Safwan | with permission from Luna Safwan

Safwan received support from the newly formed Alternative Journalism Syndicate established in 2019 during the Lebanese protests by independent journalists in the country. She also had support from some local and international organisations, independent online media platforms, and influential Instagram accounts.

“I try to overcome the threats and the bullying by reminding myself that saying the truth is not an easy job and often comes with a price to pay.”

Safwan noticed that freedom of speech has declined in the past year, especially since the protests in 2019.

“I think we are at a very serious crossroads when it comes to freedoms: we need new laws and new guidelines to protect journalists and freedom of speech from all sorts of threats and attacks. This is vital in a country that’s slowly turning into a police state,” Safwan added.

Double jeopardy

The stories of Seif El Dine and Safwan are not the only examples of attacks on journalists. Rabih Chantaf, a former reporter at Future TV and currently working with Sawt Beirut International, was also a victim of a politically motivated attack.

On 24 November 2020, Chantaf and his cameraman Mahmoud Al Sayyed were covering an unknown fire in an 11-story building in Zuqaq Al Blat, a neighborhood in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where Hezbollah and Amal have strong support.

While filming, a number of men that Chantaf believes are supporters of the two Shiite parties asked them to stop filming before physically assaulting them.

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Rabih Chantaf | with permission from Rabih Chantaf

Chantaf was disappointed by the reaction of the security forces present at the time, who he claims simply warned them about the attack, rather than protecting them from the attackers.

For Chantaf, journalists are frontliners who are most likely to get targeted, abused or beaten up by party thugs.

He also complained about a lack of support from the Press Syndicate and the judiciary, claiming “we get some support from people on social media or sometimes protests if our case concerns public opinion, but that’s it.”

The cases of Seif El Dine, Safwan, and Chantaf are just a few examples of the threats that journalists face for speaking out against the political elite.

For Chantaf, freedom of speech in Lebanon is being limited from two sides: “On one side, by people who are against us and attack us either physically or on social media, and on the other by the government and its security forces.”

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