TV crew arrested at Beirut port explosion site

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Lebanese army intelligence briefly arrested a Lebanese TV crew on Friday morning who were filming at the site of the deadly blast at Beirut’s port.

Journalist Edmond Sassine and cameraman Paul Bou Aoun were reporting on the devastation wrought by Tuesday’s explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been unsafely stored at a port warehouse since 2014.

Following his arrest, Sassine said on Twitter that while the army had treated him and his colleague well, “journalists who are doing their jobs are not the ones who should be arrested.”

“It should be the senior officials.”

Sassine also claimed that foreign journalists were being allowed to report from the port site.

A military spokesperson was not able to provide further detail on the arrest of the LBCI crew.

A team from Lebanese channel MTV were also briefly arrested at the site on Wednesday.

The spokesperson told Al Arabiya English that the Army was not allowing journalists to enter the explosion site in order to protect an “active crime scene” and prevent evidence being damaged. Drones are also banned from flying or filming in the area, the spokesperson added.

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Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said that the group was keeping an eye on the arrest and potential restrictions on freedom of speech.

Following the explosion, Lebanon’s Cabinet announced a two-week state of emergency in the wake of the blast in the capital, handing over security to the army. However, the spokesperson said this would have no effect on the press freedom.

Even with a state of emergency in place, Majzoub said, states must uphold certain rights, including the right to life and the prohibition on torture, as well as the requirements of a fair trial.

“Although other rights may be temporarily restricted, the onus is on the state to show that these restrictions are provided for in law, that they are justified and necessary to achieve a legitimate goal, and that they are proportionate,” she added.

For independent journalist Luna Safwan, any “arbitrary arrest, even momentarily, is an attack on freedom of the press.”

“The Lebanese security authorities use every event as an excuse to act as a police state and impose certain restrictions,” she said.

On Thursday night, amid growing anger at the apparent criminal negligence that led to the deaths of more than 150 people in the explosion, dozens of protesters headed to the Parliament building. Security forces responded by firing rounds of teargas into the crowd.

Large protests are expected to be held in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on Saturday afternoon to demand justice for those killed, injured or made homeless by the devastating blast.

“The only way to hold people accountable is transparent and investigative reporting,” Safwan said. “This is vital.”

Press freedom and freedom of expression in Lebanon have eroded in recent years, with dozens of journalists and activists being called in for questioning by security agencies after criticizing powerful politicians.

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This crackdown accelerated following mass protests against corruption, economic mismanagement and an entrenched sectarian political system that erupted in October last year. Between October and July at least 60 people were summoned or arrested for their posts on social media.

Last month, a group of Lebanese and international organizations formed a new coalition to defend free speech in Lebanon, decrying an “alarming increase” in attacks on peaceful speech and expression.

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