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PRESS FREEDOM A CASUALTY IN LATEST CONFLICT

At least five journalists have been injured in Beirut in recent days covering the fierce clashes between pro- and anti-government factions, while media outlets have been forced to shut down, report IFEX member in Lebanon the Maharat Foundation and other press freedom organisations.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), four reporters and photographers for the daily opposition newspaper "Sada al Balad" were injured in attacks while covering the conflict last week.

One of the photographers, Wadi Shlink, was in the Beshara al-Khoury area taking "regular" pictures of young men setting tires on fire on 7 May. "Suddenly, 20 of them attacked me. I ran looking for the security forces to protect me. Some soldiers tried to save me - in vain, because they were outnumbered by the rioters. They didn't calm down until they had taken my camera," Shlink told free expression website Menassat.com.

According to Menassat, the army ignored street fighting in the Beirut area of Corniche Mazraa, a traditional flashpoint between Sunni and Shiite forces, and instead went after journalists, forbidding them from taking pictures. Said Beyrouti, a reporter for Hezbollah's Al-Manar television, was kept from covering the fighting by the armed forces and beaten over the head and had to be hospitalised, Menassat reports.

Other journalists have been detained by police, had their equipment broken or their homes ransacked. On 12 May, two cameramen working for Al Jazeera were slightly injured when gunmen fired on their vehicle, reports ARTICLE 19.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah supporters forced the closure of pro-government satellite TV channels Future TV and Future News, the daily newspaper "Al-Mustaqbal" and Radio Orient on 9 May, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The four media companies are all owned by the family of Saad Hariri, the head of the Future movement, the anti-Syrian majority party in the Lebanese parliament.

Rockets were fired early on 9 May at the headquarters of "Al-Mustaqbal", starting a fire on one of its floors, reports RSF. Soon afterwards, gunmen surrounded the offices of the radio and television stations, and threatened to open fire if they did not stop broadcasting.

Future employees and other journalists have been holding a daily sit-in in front of the Future News building in Qantari to protest the closure.

The daily newspaper "Liwaa" also hasn't been able to publish - its printing house is located in the midst of the conflict zone, says Maharat. And on 10 May, the headquarters of the Armenian-speaking Radio Sevan was burned down in west Beirut, reports ARTICLE 19.

IFJ is supporting calls from the unions and Maharat to ensure journalists' safety, independence and their right to work. "We are calling on all political parties to end their attacks on media workers," says IFJ. "All journalists in Lebanon, including those working from starkly different perspectives, are unarmed non-combatants and must be treated accordingly. It is intolerable that journalists become vulnerable targets in this conflict simply for doing their jobs."

Maharat and others say the real problem is the politicisation of the Lebanese media, which has become the mouthpiece of the political group with which they are affiliated. The threats faced by reporters now are not a result of working in a war zone, but because of the "division of the Lebanese media between pro-government, opposition and independent media" that reflect the political struggle, says Maharat. It is calling on the media to "remain objective and not to enter the circle of violence."

Clashes between the Hezbollah-led opposition and government supporters started on 7 May in several west Beirut neighbourhoods on the back of a general strike demanding wage hikes amid rising prices. In one of the decisions last week that triggered the violence, government officials said they would close down a private telephone network operated by Hezbollah in south Lebanon and the southern parts of Beirut. Hezbollah says the communications system was critical to its success in its 34-day war against Israel in 2006.

The protests raised tensions in a country mired in a 17-month-old political crisis between the Hezbollah-led opposition supported by Iran and Syria and the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who is backed by the West and Saudi Arabia. The standoff has left the country without a president since November.

Fighting has moved outside the Lebanese capital this week, fuelling fears that the violence could spiral into an outright civil war. According to news reports, at least 81 people have been killed and more than 250 have been wounded since last Wednesday in what observers are calling the worst political crisis since the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s.

Visit these links:
- Maharat: http://maharatfoundation.org/
- ARTICLE 19: http://www.article19.org/
- IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/4d4m8l
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26954
- Menassat on silencing Future TV: http://tinyurl.com/3wcjeo
- Menassat on Beirut ganging up on the press: http://tinyurl.com/3nagum
- Menassat on the casualty of the media: http://tinyurl.com/56h3qf
- Arab Press Network: http://tinyurl.com/4hyoh9
(Photo: "Sada al Balad" photographers Wadih Shlink (left) and Asad Ahmed on 9 May, after covering the clashes between government and opposition forces in Beirut. Photo courtesy of Menassat.com)

(13 May 2008)

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