Lebanon's journalists suffer abuse, threats covering unrest
Lebanese anchorwoman Dima Sadek uses her cellphone to film an anti-government protest, in Beirut, Lebanon. Sadek, who last month resigned as an anchorwoman at the LBC TV, blamed Hezbollah supporters for robbing her smartphone while she was filming protest
AP, Beirut :
Lebanese journalists are facing threats and wide-ranging harassment in their work - including verbal insults and physical attacks, even death threats - while reporting on nearly 50 days of anti-government protests, despite Lebanon's reputation as a haven for free speech in a troubled region.
Nationwide demonstrations erupted on Oct. 17 over a plunging economy. They quickly grew into calls for sweeping aside Lebanon's entire ruling elite. Local media outlets - some of which represent the sectarian interests protesters are looking to overthrow - are now largely seen as pro- or anti-protests, with some journalists feeling pressured to leave their workplaces over disagreements about media coverage.
The deteriorating situation for journalists in Lebanon comes despite its decades-old reputation for being an island of free press in the Arab world. Amid Lebanon's divided politics, media staff have usually had wide range to freely express their opinions, unlike in other countries in the region where the state stifles the media.
The acts of harassment began early in the protests. MTV television reporter Nawal Berry was attacked in central Beirut in the first days of the demonstrations by supporters of the militant group Hezbollah and its allies. They smashed the camera, robbed the microphone she was holding, spat on her and kicked her in the leg.
"How is it possible that a journalist today goes to report and gets subjected to beating and humiliation? Where are we? Lebanon is the country of freedoms and democracy," Berry told The Associated Press.
Outlets like MTV are widely seen as backing protesters' demands that Lebanon's sectarian political system be completely overturned to end decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Rival TV stations and newspapers portray the unrest - which led to the Cabinet's resignation over a month ago - as playing into the hands of alleged plots to undermine Hezbollah and its allies. Many of those outlets are run by Hezbollah, President Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. These media regularly blast protesters for closing roads and using other civil disobedience tactics, describing them as "bandits."
For Berry, the media environment worsened as the unrest continued. On the night of Nov. 24, while she was covering clashes between protesters and Hezbollah and Amal supporters on a central road in Beirut, supporters of the Shiite groups chased her into a building. She hid there until police came and escorted her out.
"I was doing my job and will continue to do so. I have passed through worse periods and was able to overcome them," said Berry, who added she is taking a short break from working because of what she passed through recently.
Hezbollah supporters also targeted Dima Sadek, who resigned last month as an anchorwoman at LBC TV. She blamed Hezbollah supporters for robbing her smartphone while she was filming protests, and said the harassment was followed by insulting and threatening phone calls to her mother, who suffered a stroke as a result of the stress.
"I have taken a decision (to be part of the protests) and I am following it. I have been waiting for this moment all my life and I have always been against the political, sectarian and corrupt system in Lebanon," said Sadek, a harsh critic of Hezbollah, adding that she has been subjected to cyberbullying for the past four years.
"I know very well that this will have repercussions on my personal and professional life. I will go to the end no matter what the price is," Sadek said shortly after taking part in a demonstration in central Beirut.
Protesters have also targeted journalists reporting with what are seen as pro-government outlets. OTV station workers briefly removed their logos from equipment while covering on the demonstrations to avoid verbal and physical abuse. The station is run by supporters of Aoun's FPM.
"The protest movement has turned our lives upside down," said OTV journalist Rima Hamdan, who during one of her reports slapped a man on his hand after he pointed his middle finger at her. She said the station's logo "is our identity even though sometimes we had to remove it for our own safety."