In Lebanon, man selling fake media passes to coronavirus curfew dodgers is arrested

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Lebanon entered another COVID-19 lockdown on Saturday, and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces [ISF] have so far fined over 20,000 curfew violators, including around 200 citizens using fake media passes.

As Lebanese continue to suffer from a deepening economic crisis alongside the coronavirus outbreak, where over 110,000 have reportedly been infected and 852 have died, the country went into a two-week near total lockdown November 14.

Dozens of drivers have been found to be carrying fake media passes and journalists’ IDs to dodge corona-curfew when stopped by ISF police checkpoints, local media reported.

Local outlet Al Jadeed TV aired a news report saying that Haidar Husseini made over 40 million Lebanese pounds ($26,317 at the official exchange rate) from selling over 200 fake media passes on a digital platform that bore the stamps of media licensing authorities.

Husseini, who sold fake IDs to individuals wishing to drive during the lockdown, is still in custody and an investigation is pending. The individual had reportedly announced on his Facebook page that he had solutions to how drivers could dodge the curfew by obtaining a media pass.

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As part of national restrictions, cars with even-numbered and odd-numbered plates are designated certain days on which they are allowed to drive. Most shops, companies, businesses, public and semipublic departments have been ordered to close down.

Few professionals were exempted from strict lockdown regulations, including workers in health care, security, military, emergency services, and media.

An anti-government protester shouts slogans while wearing a mask with the colors of the Lebanese flag in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, July 2, 2020. (AP)
An anti-government protester shouts slogans while wearing a mask with the colors of the Lebanese flag in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, July 2, 2020. (AP)

Over the past few days, Al Arabiya English took to the streets, and at one checkpoint inside Beirut, an ISF police corporal, who requested anonymity, said they have stopped around six people for presenting fake media passes.

“We have received instructions from our superiors that drivers are using bogus media passes to drive. One person presented a media ID that turned out to have been issued by a suspected news platform. When he admitted that he isn’t a journalist, the ID was confiscated … he was fined and warned. Another violator begged to be forgiven, claiming that he didn’t have any criminal intent and went out to look for a pharmacy,” said the corporal.

Al Arabiya English obtained a copy of a media statement issued by the ISF’s Public Relations Department reporting that 20,352 violators have been ticketed as of Friday at 5 p.m.

Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammad Fehmi tweeted, saying that forging media passes was illegal and he would work with caretaker Information Minister Manal Abdul Samad to address the issue.

On Tuesday, Lebanese army helicopters could be heard hovering all over the country and dropping leaflets to warn residents to respect the lockdown and remain quarantined at home saying “COVID-19 is not a joke.”

Fehmi received a tip from a citizen about the fake media passes, according to Al Jadeed’s report, and a sting operation led to the arrest of Husseini after one phony journalist was stopped at a checkpoint.

The Ministry of Information issued a statement thanking media professionals for doing their job “ethically and proficiently in reporting on the pandemic” but warned the public against attempting to outsmart the government by using “bogus media passes” as skirting curfew put the public at increased health risk.

The ministry also warned journalist impersonators could be held liable for such unlawful behavior that is punishable by law, cautioned the statement, as violators could be fined and/or jailed.

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Fehmi warned that ISF personnel will double-check on authenticity and validity of media passes presented at checkpoints and violators will be referred to the pertinent courts.

Al Arabiya English spoke to Colonel Joseph Mousallem, Head of ISF’s Public Relations Department, who said such behavior is highly dangerous and warned against its negative consequences.

He said the ISF has upped efforts to crack down on the issue.

One senior journalist at a local digital outlet, Ali, who preferred to be identified only by his first name, told Al Arabiya English that such behavior isn’t only unlawful but unethical in the sense that it disgraces the profession and jeopardizes the “practice of journalism.”

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