American journalist freed in Lebanon, activists remain concerned

Lebanese police arrest anti-government protesters after dispersing a protest in Beirut. (File photo: AP)

An American journalist who was detained by Lebanese security forces on suspicion of working for an Israeli newspaper was released Tuesday.

But press freedom and human rights activists as well as Lebanese and foreign journalists working in Beirut have continued to express concern about the violence directed against journalists by security forces in recent days.

The Samir Kassir Foundation, a Lebanon-based press freedom group, said in a statement Monday that it had confirmed more than 20 attacks and other violations against media workers in Lebanon since January 14, and at least 75 since the beginning of the mass protests on October 17, 2019.

Most attacks came from security forces, but also from “anti-revolution protesters and also from protesters themselves,” the foundation’s Executive Director Ayman Mhanna told Al Arabiya English.

The arrest of freelance journalist Nicholas Frakes on Sunday night came amid a confrontational turn in Lebanon’s mass protests over the past week, with hundreds of people injured in clashes between protesters and security forces.

Frakes put out a statement following his release and said he was looking forward to getting back to work.

“I’m glad that I have been released from custody and am extremely grateful for the love and support that I have received from my amazing colleagues here in Lebanon and throughout the region. I’m now looking forward to seeing my girlfriend again and getting back to reporting the news,” he said.

In a statement on Frakes’ arrest, Lebanese State Security said that they saw on social media that someone was shooting live video in downtown Beirut for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Officers went to the location from which the video appeared to have been shot, and upon finding the American journalist there, detained him for questioning. Lebanon and Israel are officially at war, and Lebanon bars foreigners who have visited Israel from entering the country.

Haaretz said in a statement on its website that the video feed came from the Reuters wire service, and that “no journalist was reporting for the newspaper on the protests from Beirut, and it has no connection to the US citizen being held.”

“The fact that (Frakes) was cleared today means that somebody made a mistake by arresting him on these charges, and we will be looking at whether or not those who made this mistake will be held accountable,” Mhanna said, though he does not yet have all the details of Frakes’ case.

Meanwhile, Lebanese journalists and advocates have launched campaigns condemning violence by security forces, particularly the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets at close range, which Human Rights Watch said had caused some “serious injuries,” including at least one case in which a protester was allegedly blinded. Journalists have posted photographs of themselves with one eye covered on social media.

A group of press freedom organizations released a statement Monday condemning the “worrying wave of attacks against journalists and photographers covering protests in Beirut,” particularly on the night of January 15, when riot police forcibly dispersed protesters assembled in front of police barracks where demonstrators arrested the night before were being detained.

“Several journalists and photographers who were covering the stand-off were beaten, had their media equipment broken, and some were detained,” the group wrote.

Dozens of Lebanese journalists staged a protest in front of the Ministry of Interior headquarters in Beirut last Thursday over the use of force, prompting Interior Minister Raya El Hassan to come down in person to respond. While maintaining that she had not directed security forces to use violence against journalist, Hassan defended the officers, saying they were “very tired.”

“They’re not sleeping, they’re being cursed, they’re having stones thrown at them,” she said.

Despite the uptick in violence, Mhanna said the three months of protests have brought some positive developments for media workers, including a marked decrease in the number of cases of journalists being detained, investigated, or censored by authorities over reports or social media statements on political and economic issues.

"Since October 17, of course, there is a higher number of physical assaults, but also there is a much wider space for freedom of expression, including press freedom," Mhanna said.

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