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Journalists covering northern clashes beaten by soldiers and civilians; army imposes restrictions on coverage

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a 25 May 2007 CPJ press release:

Lebanon: Army imposes restrictions on coverage of northern clashes

New York, May 25, 2007 - The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned that journalists have been prevented since Monday from entering a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon during clashes between Islamist militants and the Lebanese Army.

The Lebanese Army restricted public access to the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, near Tripoli, the day after fighting broke out between Fatah al-Islam - an extremist group that emerged six months ago in Lebanon and shares al-Qaeda's ideology - and the Lebanese Army. Journalists, both local and foreign, are covering the clashes and their effect on more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees caught up in the fighting.

The Lebanese Army has not publicly explained the restriction, although officials initially told journalists that it was imposed for safety reasons. Reporters told CPJ that some journalists followed aid convoys into the camp Wednesday night to report on conditions, but the Lebanese Army quickly forced them out.

In addition, journalists said, the Lebanese Army forced journalists to move out of a nearby high-rise building that had been one of the main press locations. Officials cited safety reasons in moving them on Tuesday to a building that is farther away and has obstructed views.

Journalists told CPJ that they suspected the army was also attempting to hinder coverage of the humanitarian crisis inside the camp where, according to news reports, more than a dozen civilians were killed and 12,000 refugees forced to flee the camp.

The Lebanese Army barred camera operators and photographers from taking images of the army, artillery, and targets hit. "The army command calls all the media to avoid the live coverage of the military movements and activities executed by the army units and the security forces in the operations area to facilitate the work of the intervening forces and the good execution of the mission and to protect the safety of the reporters and photographers," the Lebanese Army Command-Orientation Department said in a statement issued Sunday. Journalists said that, in practice, the ban has been applied to taped and print coverage as well.

Attacks against journalists were also reported. Al-Akhbar photographer Wael al-Ladifi, Al-Balad photographer Asad Ahmad, Agence France-Presse photographer Ramzy Haidar, and Al-Alam cameraman Ali Tahimi said they were beaten by members of the Lebanese Army on Thursday.

The journalists told CPJ that they were covering the exodus of thousands of Palestinian refugees to the nearby Beddawi camp when Lebanese soldiers warned them not to take images of the army. When Lebanese civilians supporting the army also attempted to obstruct the journalists, they said, an argument broke out. Soldiers intervened by taking al-Ladifi to an army tank where they beat him and accused him of being an Israeli spy, he told CPJ. An army captain tried to grab Ahmad's camera and began beating him in front of several journalists and civilians. Soldiers then pointed their weapons and beat the journalists, they said.

The Lebanese Army Command-Orientation Department today called the journalists to apologize and assure them that those behind the beatings will be punished, the journalists told CPJ.

Clashes between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Army erupted Sunday when soldiers conducted raids in Tripoli. The Lebanese Army laid siege to Nahr el-Bared, trapping Fatah al-Islam militants. The army has threatened to storm the camp if the group fails to surrender. Nahr el-Bared is one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon that together have 400,000 people.

In related news, television crews from three different stations came under attack from civilians while covering the aftermath of a bomb blast in the mountainous town of Aley, east of Beirut on Wednesday night. A crew from the Lebanese satellite television channel New TV was interviewing residents and filming the site of the explosion when young civilian men suspected of being loyal to anti-Syrian leader Walid Jumblatt began asking about their employer, cameraman Ghassan al-Hagg told CPJ. When the men saw the station logo, they insulted and beat members of the New TV crew, which also included reporter Christine Habib and cameraman Saed Ayad.

Al-Hagg told CPJ that he suffered a dislocated shoulder, a broken nose, two broken teeth, swollen eyes, and injuries to his left ear. He said his camera was destroyed.

CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information, visit http://www.cpj.org

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