Four journalists from Al-Jadeed who were playing the role of government watchdogs ended up the news for the day on Tuesday. The station’s crew went to the Customs General Directorate for an interview with the head of customs to discuss corruption among customs at the Beirut airport. The director refused, despite the permission letter the journalists reportedly had from the Ministry of Finance to conduct an interview.
After the journalists were refused entry, they protested outside the customs office. It resulted in security forces loyal to the customs office kicking and punching the journalists. Riad Kobeissi, one of the journalists projected his frustration through a megaphone in front of the office. He and three of his colleagues, Adib Farhat, Ali Khalifa and Ali Shreim were taken away to the Palace of Justice for questioning.
The incident drew hundreds of journalists and sympathizers to protest the assault at the Palace of Justice. Students, professors and political figures were present out of curiosity and to express support for the journalists.
The censorship of free information and inability to exercise the right of press angered many supporters. Fatima Bero, a journalism student at the Lebanese American University, was one of many people present from the beginning.
“I totally disagree what the security forces did. I want to have the right to say what I want and demand the information I need to inform the public,” Bero said. “ If I am trying to raise awareness about something or shedding light on a issue, I want to be treated with my rights and not to be treated in such a way.”
“Until Lebanon will reform the policy to give information freely, then I don’t think we have a true democracy”
While Lebanon has some traits of a democracy such as right to practice a religion, hold public assemblies and the freedom of speech, it doesn’t fully give the press freedom to report and seek information from public officials.
Hussein Khrais, a veteran journalist who currently works at MTV has been in the industry long enough to notice the barriers when accessing information from public officials and the ministries.
“In Lebanon, it’s not a true democracy. It’s turning into more of a military regime. When I work, I feel some social pressure to turn freedom of the press into military press. Until Lebanon will reform the policy to give information freely, then I don’t think we have a true democracy,” Khrais said.
Constant chanting, signs saying “Freedom of information” and cigarette smoke consumed the air during yesterday’s. Protestors echoed one another when one person said yelled a word like freedom. For several hours, supporters waited outside the Palace of Justice for the release of the journalists. As nightfall came, more and more people showed up.
Among them was Hussein Ibrahim who was sitting on his couch when he saw the news about the arrests. A student at the Lebanese University, Ibrahim also values the importance of information and he believes corruption is widespread.
“When I saw the protest, I thought holy crap, I have to come down here. Usually when there is a political rally or protest, I don’t come down, but this isn’t political. This is our right as people because without it (freedom of information and press) we don’t have a democracy in any sort of way,” he said.
Around 9 p.m., the four journalists signed papers and were released. The crowd went wild with chanting and again yelling ‘freedom, freedom!” Camera crews and protestors were pushing and shoving in an effort to get a view of the scraped face journalists. The journalists greeted supporters outside and took pictures of their new current freedom.