LEBANON

'I was beaten up by customs agents' says Lebanese journalist

 Customs agents in Beirut beat up four Lebanese journalists on Tuesday. The journalists had gone to the customs office to request — via megaphone — an interview with the customs office about an investigation into corruption at Beirut airport. This did not go down well. Riyad Kobeissi, one of the journalists who was attacked, shares his story.

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This screen grab from a video, posted below, shows journalist Riyad Kobeissi being beaten to the ground.

 

Customs agents in Beirut beat up four Lebanese journalists on Tuesday after they requested — via megaphone — an interview with regard to an investigation into corruption at Beirut airport. This did not go down well with the customs office. Riyad Kobeissi, one of the journalists who was attacked, shares his story.

 

Kobeissi, Rami al-Amine, and three other colleagues work for an investigative TV show, “Under Your Responsibility”, aired by the Al-Jadeed station. Armed with a letter of approval for an interview signed by Mohamad al-Safadi, the country’s finance minister, the journalists had tried on several occasions to meet the interim director of the customs office, but he had turned them down each time.

 

On Tuesday, Riyad Kobeissi and his team decided to show up in front of the Beirut customs office Tuesday around noon. Via a megaphone, he addressed the customs director to ask him yet again for an interview. They didn’t have to wait long for a reaction: customs agents rushed out and started beating the four journalists.

 

Footage of the altercation. This video was filmed by an al-Jadeed cameraman.

 

The journalists were first detained in the building and were later transferred to a courthouse in the afternoon. There, they were interrogated by the judicial police. They were finally released at 9pm.

 

The customs office defended itself by releasing a statement saying that the journalists had “attempted to assault the central customs building, which caused security agents to respond in order to protect the building”.

 

Throughout the day, colleagues came to express their solidarity with the reporters in front of the customs headquarters, which resulted in renewed clashes with the customs agents.

“Everything happened very quickly”

Riyad Kobeissi is an investigative journalist for al-Jadeed TV.

 

After all our requests for interviews were declined, I decided to provoke the customs director. I was aware that things might get out of hand. My investigations have been focused on the potential misbehaviour of employees of this office, and in fact several people have already gotten in trouble as a result. So we decided to set up several cameras in the street, including hidden cameras.

Everything happened very quickly; we were beaten and our equipment was broken. Rami al-Amine [one of the journalists working on the investigation] managed to flee thanks to the help of a stranger who was driving by and saw a journalist being chased by uniformed men.

 

“It really felt like we were part of a prisoner exchange”

 

After being beaten and dragged along the sidewalk, we were kidnapped — and I’m choosing my words carefully — by the customs office. Inside their building, the beatings and the insults continued. We were handcuffed.

 

Following long negotiations, which, from what I saw, seemed to involve the army intelligence services, we were brought to the courthouse. It really felt like we were part of a prisoner exchange. We were told that we were being interrogated as witnesses, but we were released on bail [a criminal procedure for suspects].

 

We have been working on issues of corruption in Lebanon for several months. And I’m aware that our reporting has upset many influential people, whether in the administration or the political spheres. I believe this is why we were targeted.

 

Many people showed up at the gatherings to support us, but just reading the newspapers reveals that my behaviour was also called into question. Some journalists even tried to side with our attackers!

 

Although it may not overhaul journalism in Lebanon, this episode will certainly cause a big shift in the power structure within the Lebanese customs authorities.

 

In a previous TV show, Riyad Kobeissi and his team had investigated the shady practices of several private companies in the import-export business working out of the Beirut port. During these investigations, he had denounced a number of irregularities at Lebanese customs, in particular with respect to how imported products are categorised (which has a direct impact on taxation) and also with how they searched containers.