BEIRUT: A violent brawl between security officers at the Downtown Beirut Customs office and TV reporters from local station Al-Jadeed erupted into a mass protest Tuesday evening after four reporters were brought in for interrogation following the fight.
Al-Jadeed footage showed a reporter from its TV crew using a megaphone sometime between noon and 2 p.m. to demand an interview with the head of the Customs General Directorate about alleged corruption.
Fighting then broke out between Customs security personnel and the TV crew in the middle of Riad al-Solh Street, a strip in Downtown where the country’s major banks are located.
The station said four of its staff – Riyad Qobeissi, Ali Shreim, Adib Farhat and Ali Khalife – were detained following the incident before being referred to the public prosecutor’s office. The Central Criminal Investigation unit interrogated the journalists for several hours before releasing them around 7 p.m.
Speaking to media after their release outside the Justice Palace in Adlieh, the journalists told Al-Jadeed that Customs security had beaten them and that they had been threatened by the man they wished to interview, Director of Customs Shafiq Merhi.
Qobeissi said it was time to “lift the political cover for smugglers,” a reference to Merhi’s alleged role in purported corruption at Beirut’s international airport that Al-Jadeed was to detail in a show due to be aired Tuesday. The episode was postponed in light of events.
Qobeissi called on Merhi to resign “with dignity.”
Both the Customs General Directorate and Al-Jadeed television filed complaints at the prosecutor’s office.
Also speaking to reporters outside the Justice Palace, State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud emphasized that the journalists had not been arrested and asked the media to let the judiciary deal with the matter.
“We will allow the investigation to take its course ... and a doctor will examine the [wounded] journalists,” Hammoud said as dozens of people, including reporters, shouted “freedom.”
The journalists had gone to the Customs General Directorate headquarters in the hope of getting a comment from Merhi for an episode of “Tahta Ta’ilat al-Mas’ouliya” – “Subject to accountability.” The show claims the customs director has been turning a blind eye to ongoing corruption at Rafik Hariri International Airport.
Hoping to draw a response from Merhi, who Al-Jadeed said turned down a request for an interview earlier this week, the journalists used a megaphone outside the Customs office to demand to speak with him. The crew had also posted a picture of Merhi on one of their vans.
Al-Jadeed said the crew was then attacked and their equipment smashed by armed Customs officials led by Brig. Gen. Ibrahim Shamseddine. Al-Jadeed footage showed Shamseddine wearing civilian clothing and pushing and beating the journalists and photographers along with other officers.
In its afternoon news report, Al-Jadeed blasted the Customs officials, describing the incident as a “cruel, militia-type attack.”
A statement from the Customs General Directorate said one of the Al-Jadeed journalists used degrading language, saying such behavior was not up to the standards of the Lebanese media.
It said security forces intervened and asked the crew to retreat and stop their “shameful act” without result, adding that crew members insulted security forces who attempted to remove Merhi’s picture from the TV van.
The statement also accused the TV crew of attempting to break into the building, prompting the security personnel to use force to stop them.
“The Customs administration condemns this unusual attack in a country fighting to build its institutions and to prevent the collapse of the remaining ones, and calls upon Al-Jadeed’s management to maintain journalistic ethics,” said the statement.
“The Customs administration also maintains the right to take any legal measures it sees fit against anyone who plans or carries out this attack, and against whoever continues this media attack.”
With the TV crew held inside the Customs office, other Al-Jadeed staff headed to Riad al-Solh Square to demonstrate the detention. The Al-Jadeed employees were soon joined by journalists from other media outlets as well as citizens and activists.
Protesters taunted Customs security forces with chants, calling Merhi a “thief” and his colleagues “shabbiha,” a word used to describe pro-Syrian regime militia fighters.
As the crowd swelled to more than 100, Customs officials pulled down the building’s metal grating to prevent individuals from coming in or out of its General Directorate. After several fights broke out, the Army was deployed.
Mohammad Barbar, a journalist at Al-Jadeed who was at the protest, told The Daily Star that they had done nothing to physically provoke Customs personnel. He spoke with a Band-Aid over his right eye, which was swollen and red.
He explained that while people were protesting peacefully, the Customs personnel beat and cursed at them. “As soon as they saw us coming, they started beating us,” he said.
Ali Ibrahim, a technician at Al-Jadeed who was also caught up in the violence, told The Daily Star that he was hit with an AK-47. Media footage of the protest also shows a member of security thrusting the barrel of his gun into Ibrahim’s face.
“They started attacking the women,” Ibrahim said, his head bleeding and his shirt soaked red. “So we began shoving each other and after a while they hit me on the head. They saw us [the protesters] approaching and they went crazy.”
Hussein Khreiss, an employee with local television station MTV, was also among those protesting for the release of the Al-Jadeed journalists.
“I am protesting in solidarity with Riyad [Qobeissi] and with the entire media body,” he told The Daily Star.
News of the chaos went viral across social websites such as Twitter and Facebook, with many expressing support for the Al-Jadeed television crew.
“#aljadeed we are all with u & always support u,” read one tweet.
“Oppressing the media isn’t acceptable #AlJadeed we all support you,” read another.
A number of journalists and activists also gathered outside the Customs General Directorate in the southern city of Sidon to show solidarity.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati came out in support of the journalists, stressing the need to “respect the freedom of the media.”
Caretaker Information Minister Walid Daouk condemned the assault as well, adding that he hoped “it will not be repeated” and expressing his support for the station.
Commenting on the incident, Caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi said the matter was in the hands of the Military Tribunal, as the Customs officials were part of the armed forces.
“The Customs administration has taken measures in coordination with the military prosecutor and the case is now in the hands of the military court,” Safadi said in a statement.
Ziyad Baroud, an attorney and a former Interior Minister, condemned the incident and said journalists had “the full right to uncover corruption, no matter the method.”
He also said assaulting an unarmed citizen with “brutal violence” was a crime against Lebanon in its entirety.