BEIRUT: A Lebanese journalist from pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat was interrogated Monday by the Internal Security Forces’ Cybercrime Bureau. The Samir Kassir Foundation’s SKEyes center for media and cultural freedom reported Friday that journalist Fidaa Itani had been summoned to the Cybercrime Bureau for questioning.
The foundation said in a statement that Itani was not told why he had been summoned, but was allowed to postpone the appointment until Monday due to “family reasons.”
Itani’s brother, Houssam, told The Daily Star that he was summoned following a legal complaint filed by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
The Foreign Ministry declined to comment when contacted Monday.
Hours before his interrogation, Itani shared a blog post he wrote announcing that he was set to be interrogated “for a case that has not officially been disclosed to me yet.”
The Daily Star tried to contact the journalist but was unable to reach him Monday.
His long blog post, entitled “Stopping [the] Last Breath,” Itani talks about how he feels Lebanon has scapegoated individuals and communities to distract people from the country’s most pressing social, economic and political issues.
He added that Syrian refugees are today’s scapegoated community.
The journalist has been outspoken over the recent incident in which four Syrian refugees died in military custody after an attack on a military raid on refugee camps in northeast Lebanon’s Arsal. In the post he criticized the Lebanese Army, President Michel Aoun, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, among other Lebanese officials and politicians for being complicit in corruption and dereliction of duty allowing the deaths in custody to take place.
In a swift response to a series of attacks from militants on June 30, the Lebanese Army arrested 355 refugees in Arsal. The Army said that four refugees died in custody due to pre-existing health conditions that were exacerbated by the weather conditions.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri said during last week’s Cabinet session that a military investigation would take place. He reiterated the news Monday following a meeting with Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf and Army head Gen. Joseph Aoun.
Hariri added that he would receive the results of the investigation within “two or three days.”
“As for the political support for the Army, it is unconditional ... The military establishment is beyond any suspicion and for those who are trying to fish in murky water, [the] must change course,” he said.
Tuesday July 4, Itani posted photos reportedly of one of the dead Syrians to his Facebook profile, which was widely shared across social media platforms. His account contradicted the Army’s statement and he claimed that at least 10 Syrians have died as a result of torture, and identified the body pictured as “Marwan al-Issa.” The name is not among the four identified by the Army in its statement. Itani claimed that his sources told him that there are at least another five Syrians who “died under torture.”
The Daily Star could not verify the claims. The Army was unavailable for comment on the allegations.
Last Thursday, Itani also spoke to Al-Hadath television, part of Al-Arabiya news network, about the incident. “What we are seeing today is that there is a clear message for Syrian refugees,” he said in the interview. “The [Lebanese] security apparatus has a brutal agenda using the language of death and blood to tell them that they must return [to Syria].”
Itani reportedly became the subject of another lawsuit last Wednesday, alongside north Lebanon lawyer Tarek Shandab, fellow journalist Bassam Jaafara and a man named as Jerry Maher, according to court papers seen by The Daily Star.
Lawyers Wissam al-Madbouh, Soha Ballout, Mustafa Nawfal, and Kamal al-Jammal presented a case to the general prosecution, that then pressed charges against the four individuals in connection to articles and social media posts that criticized President Michel Aoun and the Army.
A digital copy of the document, which a judicial source told the Daily Star was genuine, said that Itani “committed a crime of slander.”
The Daily Star could not verify whether this case is being brought up in the interrogation with the Cybercrime Bureau.
Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation Ayman Mehanna said that legal gray areas over free speech and online posts continue to put journalists under pressure, as social media is not specifically included within Lebanon’s “Publications Law.”
Mehanna said he was concerned with how frequently individuals were being summoned to the Cybercrimes Bureau over online posts.
“It is happening very frequently,” he said. “It’s done in a way so people don’t directly notice.”
“[There are] digital means to completely invade our privacy,” he added. “This is a cause for concern.”
In March, Lebanese activist Ahmad Amhaz was released on a LL500,000 ($330) bail following nine days in prison over a Facebook post that insulted political officials.
He criticized President Aoun, Prime Minister Hariri, and Speaker Nabih Berri in the post. “There are three animals currently ruling the country: A crocodile ... a donkey ... and one that hasn’t been revealed yet,” the post read, ending with the hashtag #republicofthejungle.