BEIRUT: Dozens of journalists and activists gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Beirut Thursday to denounce police brutality over the last three months of protests. They called for the interior minister to demand that police refrain from attacking journalists and for those guilty of using excessive force to be held accountable. Members of the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army have repeatedly used excessive force against journalists covering the nationwide uprising that began on Oct. 17, often attempting to prevent photographers and cameramen from documenting the violent treatment of protesters.
After around an hour of negotiations between journalists and an adviser to caretaker Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, she walked down to meet them. Police were ordered to close the road for her arrival.
She said any violence against journalists was “unacceptable” and that she took full responsibility, as the ISF falls under her purview.
Nevertheless, Hassan said that police were “exhausted and not sleeping,” urging journalists to show them sympathy. Her remarks were met with accusations that she was attempting to justify the violence; an allegation she rejected.
Later Thursday, ISF chief Maj. Gen. Imad Othman expressed his “sincere apologies” to journalists covering events outside the Helou barracks, praising them for providing citizens with the truth.
Press Syndicate head Joseph Qossaifi said he appreciated the apology but that it was “not enough to make up for the great pain and resentment felt by journalists.” The syndicate issued a statement calling for the punishment of those who “relentlessly oppress media colleagues.”
Othman called for understanding of the difficult circumstances that security forces have been experiencing over the last 92 days. He said at least 483 police personnel have been injured since the protests began.
Both Othman and Hassan said anyone found to have attacked journalists would be arrested and referred to the judiciary.
For its part, the Skeyes Center for Media Freedom said it had recorded more than 70 incidents of abuse against journalists since the protests began three months ago.
However, Thursday’s demonstration was prompted by two consecutive nights of particularly brazen attacks on journalists during stand-offs between security forces and protesters in Beirut. At least 15 journalists were assaulted by riot police Wednesday night alone, according to Skeyes, including The Daily Star’s photographer Hasan Shaaban.
“It was brutal,” Hussein Baydoun, a photographer with The New Arab, told The Daily Star. “This happens to us all the time, but last night’s aggression was flagrant.”
“We told them we were journalists, but they didn’t listen,” he added.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Helou police barracks Wednesday night to demand the release of more than 50 detainees. Riot police eventually dispersed the crowd with tear gas, pushing them into nearby streets.
When only a few protesters remained, riot police rushed out of the barracks in the direction of photographers and television reporters documenting the events, according to video footage and eyewitness accounts. Hassan Rifai, a journalist at Al-Jadeed was thrown to the ground by riot police, while others attacked the channel’s cameraman Samir al-Okdeh.
Abbas Salman, former head of the Syndicate of Photojournalists, said he and his colleagues have long been targets of police violence.
“We always pay the price on the ground,” he lamented. “This is totally unacceptable.”
Salman and his colleagues laid their cameras on the ground in front of the ministry Wednesday, creating a powerful image to convey their rejection of violence.
“Attacking journalists is totally inadmissible when we are just doing our jobs and [covering] what’s happening,” Miriam Sweidan, a journalist at Daraj Media, said. She held one end of a banner for the Alternative Journalists’ Syndicate, which called for the demonstration.
The new union was created during the uprising as a substitute for the main syndicate that is linked to the mainstream political parties.
A group of protesters stood in front of Hassan’s home Thursday evening to reject violence against both journalists and demonstrators.
Many, including Baydoun, felt that the violent way in which police officers attacked journalists Wednesday evening had come as direct orders from superiors.
“It was intentional, as if there was a decision to clear journalists away,” Baydoun said.
Hassan and Othman vehemently denied this, saying they had always commanded security forces to treat journalists with respect.
Several people who do not work in journalism joined the protest to show their support. Among them was 59-year-old Samar Salman, who stressed that a free press was the foundation of democracy.
“If you kill the voice of the journalists, you kill the voice of the people,” Salman said.