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Detention of journalists sparks Lebanon protest

As the protesting crowd swelled to more than 100 and after several fights broke out, the Army was deployed.

Published: Updated:

A brawl between security officers at the Downtown Beirut Customs office and TV reporters from local station al-Jadeed turned into a protest late Tuesday after four reporters were bought in for interrogation following the altercation.

Al-Jadeed footage, aired on Wednesday, showed one of its reporters using a megaphone to demand an interview with the head of the Customs General Directorate about alleged corruption.

Fighting then broke out between the Directorate’s security personnel and the TV crew, sometime between noon and 2 p.m., according to the Daily Star.

Al-Jadeed reported that four of its staff were detained following the alleged physical altercation before being referred to the public prosecutor’s office.

With the TV crew held inside the Customs office, other al-Jadeed staff demonstrated the detention in the vicinity of the office. They were joined by other journalists and members of the public, according to the Daily Star Lebanon.

As the crowd swelled to more than 100, Customs officials pulled down the building’s metal gate and after several fights broke out, the Army was deployed.

The Central Criminal Investigation unit interrogated the journalists for several hours before releasing them around 7 p.m., reported the Daily Star Lebanon.

Speaking to media after their release, the journalists told al-Jadeed that Customs that security had physically abused them and that they had been threatened by the man they wished to interview, Director of Customs, Shafiq Merhi.

Riyad Qobeissi, one of the journalists, said the time had come to “lift the political cover for smugglers,” in reference to Merhi’s alleged role in purported corruption at Beirut’s international airport.

He was detained along with Ali Shreim, Adib Farhat and Ali Khalife, all of whom work for al-Jadeed.

Also speaking to reporters outside the Justice Palace, State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud stressed that the journalists had not been arrested.

“We will allow the investigation to take its course ... and a doctor will examine the [wounded] journalists,” Hammoud said, as some members of the crowd shouted “freedom.”

Both the Customs General Directorate and al-Jadeed television have filed complaints at the prosecutor’s office in response to Tuesday’s events.

Mud slinging

Al-Jadeed aired an afternoon report on Wednesday during which it described the incident as a “cruel, militia-type attack.”

A statement from the Customs General Directorate said one of the al-Jadeed journalists used degrading language and added that such behavior was not up to the standards of the Lebanese media.

The statement accused the TV crew of attempting to break into the building, prompting the security personnel to use force to stop the office from being breached.

“The Customs administration condemns this unusual attack in a country fighting to build its institutions and to prevent the collapse of the remaining ones, and calls upon al-Jadeed’s management to maintain journalistic ethics,” said the statement.

“The Customs administration also maintains the right to take any legal measures it sees fit against anyone who plans or carries out this attack, and against whoever continues this media attack.”

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati came out in support of the journalists, stressing the need to “respect the freedom of the media.”