“This is a warzone, buddy, every warlord owns his street,” the anonymous account wrote to me on Twitter.
Stop complaining, Israel is doing it too, but “you roam freely in Lebanon”, I was told.
Who’s “you”? Journalists, you mean? “Foreign” journalists who find that there is a problem with a non-state actor confiscating reporters’ IDs and detaining them for hours?
“If you don’t like it, leave. Go back to your country,” I also heard.
“It is known,” I was told, while waiting with my coworker in front of the General Security headquarters in Beirut for Matt Knayston, NOW journalist detained by men identifying as Hezbollah agents while reporting at a gas station on the Airport Road, to be released. “You cannot report in Dahyieh if you don’t have permission from Hezbollah.”
This type of advice should not come from someone who took to the streets to overthrow a sectarian system that allowed the warlords to continue ruling with impunity after the civil war, bringing the country to ruin. Kellon ya3ne kellon. Everyone means everyone.
The media should be free
Hezbollah, or any other non-state actor for that matter, should not have the right to detain and interrogate reporters, regardless of their nationality. Even state security agencies need to justify when they take action against journalists.
Journalists should be free to report on a crisis that is affecting everyone in Lebanon.
People were waiting in line at a gas station, humiliated and angry. They should be given a voice and they should be given that voice until they are listened to.
There were security concerns at that particular gas station. When most petrol stations in Beirut kept their pumps closed on Monday, the gas station on Airport Road decided to sell fuel. The crowd was anxious, people were fighting.
Moreover, the gas station owners had made a public call for the army and security forces to intervene and calm things down. My coworkers had a solid reason to report on these events. They did not choose that gas station in order to report on Hezbollah, nor to talk about Hezbollah. Hezbollah was in no way concerned. Why request a permit from them?
Everyone is suffering under the financial crisis; hundreds of people were waiting to get gas at that petrol station. Their stories are real, their struggle should be known.
But Hezbollah’s agents were more concerned about “security”, about the safety of its arms, of its political objectives. They were more concerned with isolating the community and keeping outsiders out, God forbid they may be “Zionist spies”. Human security was not an issue for them. Everyone is a “Zionist spy”, especially if they are western foreigners.
What my colleagues experienced on Monday is not new at all. It has been happening for years and years. Most journalists have a hard time stepping foot in Dahyieh, and photographers think twice before taking out their cameras. Veterans are used to it, and now know where they can take pictures, and where not to.
This type of calculation happens when there is an autocratic regime, a police state or a paramilitary group ruling through intimidation. Freedom of speech is under stress in autocracies.
This was not about security during the visit of Hamas Secretary-General Ismail Hanyieh to Beirut and his having meetings in a location nearby, as we have been told through informal channels. In fact, if that was the case, the gas station should have been closed down. A few hundred stranded and angry motorists about to fight should have been more of a security concern than two journalists.
A long list of detained journalists
The case of Rami Aysha, a Palestinian-Lebanese freelance journalist who was taken at gunpoint from the Southern Suburbs while working on an investigative piece, never left my mind while I was waiting for my colleagues to come out of the General Security offices.
In August 2012 he was working on an investigative piece on arms smuggling in the Southern suburbs of Beirut. On August 30th of that year, a group of armed men surrounded his car and kidnapped him and his companions. He was handed over to the Military Intelligence, beaten and imprisoned for a month. He was then released with the trauma that arises after a month of beatings. On December 9, 2013, a military court in Beirut passed a two-week prison sentence against him for trying to “sell weapons as an undercover reporter”.
In August 2008, David Hury, a French journalist, was detained in Dahyieh, taken to various locations and questioned for six hours about his professional and private life before being released.
Three days later, two Brazilian journalists, Marcos Losekan and Paulo Pimentel of Globo TV, and Beirut-based Brazilian journalist Tariq Saleh, who worked for the Brazilian service of the BBC, went through a similar experience.
Many other foreign and local journalists were detained in the southern suburbs of Beirut over the past 15 years. Moreover, local journalists who spoke against the party were intimidated, threatened and harassed on social media.
Getting a point of view on anything from people living in areas seen as strongholds of Hezbollah is almost impossible unless one goes through friends of friends. Otherwise, one gets detained and made into an example.
A permit from the Lebanese Ministry of Information, Ministry of Defense or any other state authority would not mean anything in areas where Hezbollah is in control. For this particular reason, Hezbollah media office practices have been slammed by international media freedom organizations.
What happened to our colleagues is not just a one-time incident. This is systematic intimidation of any media initiative to report on the territory Hezbollah thinks it controls.
Beyond the immediate backlash that happens after such an incident, with media freedom organizations slamming the party of God for its practices, the bitter taste that remains is that journalists simply give up the idea of reporting, and getting stories out from these areas.
It is absolutely no secret that Hezbollah doesn’t “like” us. We are usually denied any comments from the Hezbollah media office, and when they do happen to reply, they say they will not give any statement. If we, by any chance, apply for a permit to report on Hezbollah affairs or request an interview, forget about it. The process is made difficult on purpose and the story, whatever it may be, becomes outdated.
There is absolutely no legal requirement in Lebanon that conditions journalists’ access to public space in Dahyieh to Hezbollah permission. It’s an informal practice that the party has imposed on the media and many compromised either out of fear or in exchange for receiving some limited access.
But in all honesty, much like most other political parties in Lebanon, the Party of God doesn’t answer questions, its leaders cannot be directly scrutinized, their speeches are just nicely transcribed by diligent reporters who don’t ask anything uncomfortable.
If anyone scrutinizes and fact-checks, if anyone tries to ask uncomfortable questions, they are accused of having a “Western” agenda. Some are discredited on social media as “white foreigners”, others, many of our Lebanese colleagues, are harassed and threatened and pressured to remain silent.
But we haven’t built villas out of our journalistic work and we don’t even own cars. We are trying hard to crowdfund in order to keep publishing in-depth reports and we will continue to do so.
We take the service every day to work, and buses to report on areas outside of Beirut. We sweat in our houses at night without electricity in the middle of the summer. Just like everyone. We struggle to make ends meet every day, and to put food on the table.
We may not have been born here, but some of us have families here, loved ones who were hurt in the August 4 blast, their houses shattered, their lives turned upside down. We are here because we are tied to Lebanon by our heart and soul.
Yes, we do have an agenda. We advocate for freedom; we want people to be treated with dignity no matter where they are from.
We want to tell people’s stories and give them a voice when they need to be listened to. We want accountability and we want to be able to publish journalistic investigations in Lebanon.
Yes, we want to be able to “roam free” and bring truth to light. Even at a gas station.
That’s our “agenda”.
Ana Maria Luca is the senior editor of @NOW_leb.