Lebanon’s journalists face Hezbollah threat

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116296″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]On 4 February, the Lebanese activist, political commentator and publisher Lokman Slim was shot dead in his car

Before his murder, Slim already suspected that his days were numbered and told family members that should anything happen to him, the Shia militant group Hezbollah – of which he had been an outspoken critic – would likely be behind it.

For the first time in years, after verbal and many physical attacks on people who oppose the politics of Hezbollah, a well-known personality [Slim] was assassinated in their areas with many leads that allow many to boldly question their involvement in his murder,” said Lebanese journalist Luna Safwan.

Safwan said that his assassination followed years of threats and attempts to drive him away from his house which is located inside the Hezbollah stronghold in Dahiye.

“[There were] continuous campaigns against him, trying to somehow shape his view as a sympathiser with violence against Hezbollah supporters or the Shia community in Lebanon,” she said. “The way I see it, the aim was not only to assassinate him physically, but to also tarnish his reputation even after his death.”

Safwan herself has also been targeted. She tweeted criticism of Hezbollah in October and received a high volume of online abuse, including several death threats, after the tweet was featured on an Israeli news channel.

Safwan believes attacks on journalists and other critics of Hezbollah have increased in recent years. 

“Journalists, activists and even protestors and people from inside the Shia community have started questioning Hezbollah’s politics in the region, and how much Hezbollah is prioritising Lebanon.”

Last December, the family of Maryam Seif Eddine, a strong critic of Hezbollah, was attacked and issued with death threats.

The same month, Sawt Beirut International reporter Rabih Chantaf and cameraman Mahmoud Al-Sayyed were attacked while covering a fire in the Lebanese capital.

Arab News reported that as the pair were filming firemen attending the blaze, they were approached by people in plain clothes and forcibly stopped from filming. They were beaten as they fled down the building’s stairs. Sawt Beirut blamed the incident on Hezbollah.

In January, Layal Alekthiar, a journalist for US-backed Alhurra News channel, was threatened after a Twitter post that questioned the unveiling of a statue to the late Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, killed by US forces last year. Iran is a backer of Hezbollah.

Another journalist working in Lebanon – who wished to remain anonymous due to the current attitude towards reporters – told Index that journalists in the country “all feel at risk”.

“The assassination of Slim was a reminder of that,” they said. 

Journalists are increasingly self-censoring as a result.

The journalist said, “I have been covering [Lebanon’s] economic crisis, so I don’t feel personally at risk, even though I noticed that my sources are getting increasingly scared,” they said. “If I were to be given a topic related to Hezbollah I would be extra careful. You just have to see the number of threats my colleagues receive when they express an anti-Hezbollah opinion on social media.”

Independent Lebanese journalist Zahra Hankir, who wrote in the winter issue of Index on Censorship magazine and is based between London and Lebanon, said reporters are reeling from recent events and are “galvanised” by the state in which Lebanon finds itself in, particularly following the deadly explosion in August that killed more than 200 people and injured thousands.

“Despite Lebanon being hailed for decades as more free for journalists than its regional counterparts, reporters, political analysts and commentators in the country are increasingly facing threats and harassment in their work, particularly women,” she said.

“Lebanon’s media landscape has always had ‘red lines’ that journalists inherently understood could not be crossed without reprisals – among them, criticism of Hezbollah.”

“Reporters and commentators have been galvanized by recent events, given the dire state of the country, and as such have often been more brazen in their reporting. In some cases, they have paid dearly for their bravery.”

The explosion exposed, among other things, wide-scale corruption in the country. But the lack of accountability in Lebanon means people are still at risk and not just from Hezbollah.

With Hezbollah increasingly criticised for its position in Lebanon and the government unwilling to truly crack down on corruptive practices, journalists are constantly looking over their shoulders.

Safwan said: “Laws in Lebanon have flaws and don’t offer any real protection to journalists, especially when we are subjected to online hate campaigns. There should be a clear process that allows us to immediately pursue legal action even if against ‘unknown entities’. 

She said, “In my opinion the ministry of information and syndicate of journalism are not paying attention to what journalists really need.”

Additional reporting by Mark Frary[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Why Index has held its first ever social media blackout

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115908″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Yesterday, for the first time, the team at Index suspended its normal social media engagement. We stopped highlighting each attack on free speech around the world. We stopped giving comment on emerging events. Instead for 24 hours, we tweeted, on the hour, every hour, about one man – Ruhollah Zam.

We did this because Ruhollah’s story exemplifies why Index on Censorship exists. And because we are heartbroken at his death.

Ruhollah was executed by his government, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

His “crime” was to be journalist and a human rights activist – running an alternative news channel which criticised the Government. A brave and honourable endeavour.

Ruhollah’s “crime” was to exercise his rights as stated in Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. For the record, Iran was an original signatory to the UN DHR. When they signed the declaration in 1948 they committed to a world where all of us have basic human rights. On Saturday, they ignored this commitment.

Ruhollah was killed by his government. He was hanged. He was silenced.

Please take a few minutes today to read about Ruhollah’s life – as with all of us he was more than his job title. He was a son, a husband and a father. His life touched literally hundreds of thousands of people because of his activism. His death must reach millions.

The Iranian execution of Ruhollah Zam is a stark reminder of why Index was launched nearly 50 years ago. We were established to shine a light on repressive regimes, to ensure that attacks on free expression were documented and to provide a home for the writings of dissidents when they couldn’t publish in the countries of their birth.

Ruhollah Zam embodied the fight for free expression and a free press. It’s now down to us to live up to his legacy and make sure that journalists, activists, artists, academics and writers know that they have a home and that someone is making sure that their voices are heard – even when they are incarcerated.

Ruhollah Zam, 27 July 1978 – 12 December 2020

May His Memory Be A Blessing

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“His only crime is to believe that Egyptians deserve the most basic of human rights”


Kelly and Ennarah in happier times

Two months ago, British documentary filmmaker Jess Kelly was making plans for a happy future. She had just got married and she and her Egyptian husband Karim Ennarah were planning on a life together in London.

Today, the future could hardly be more uncertain. Ennarah is in an Egyptian jail facing charges of belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news, with the threat of a long jail sentence.

Ennarah’s ‘crime’ was to meet in early November with a group of European diplomats, including from the UK and the Netherlands, to discuss human rights issues in the country. Ennarah works as criminal justice unit director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. His work focuses on human rights abuses within Egypt’s policing and the criminal justice system.

Speaking to Index, Kelly said, “I was in London on the day of the meeting and we were on the phone. He mentioned he had to get up early and had an important meeting with a couple of diplomats.

“It was typical of him to underplay the importance of these things and also to underplay his role. He joked that he was going to have to wear a suit. I didn’t know then it was going to be such a historic turning point,” said Kelly.

A few days later, Ennarah travelled to the Red Sea town of Dahab for a short break with friends. Kelly planned to join him there.

On the day of his arrival, Ennarah received a phone call to say that his EIPR colleague Mohammad Bashseer had been arrested. He thought about turning around and heading straight back to help but he decided to stay for one night.

Kelly says, “That night he called me, he told me the police had come to his mum’s house and told me to prepare for the worst. He couldn’t couch it in comforting terms.”

A natural advocate

Kelly first met Ennarah in 2009.

“I was doing my degree in Arabic and was spending the second year in Cairo. We were introduced by mutual friends. At the time, he was working for the UN in South Sudan and he started working for EIPR in 2011, just after the revolution. We got together in 2015.”

Ennarah was well suited to his new role.

“He found himself very suited to the job of advocacy,” said Kelly. “His sense of right and wrong was strong and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of human rights. He is also a very good speaker and can talk to anyone.”

EIPR is one of the few remaining human rights organisations in Egypt.

“Over the years, Karim has supported many journalists who come to him for comment,” said Kelly. “EIPR are the ones in the know, they are the only people taking testimonies and conducting proper research into abuses of human rights, whether of minorities or in the criminal justice system.”

Kelly says that the human rights situation in Egypt has deteriorated over the years and the authorities have been locking up political prisoners at an increasing rate.

“I have made films in most countries in the Middle East – Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. Egypt is the only place I have never been granted a visa. People see Egypt as a holiday destination where you can drink and people have a good time. It is well known to us in the media that Egypt is the only place that you don’t try and expose things because you will be locked up.”

Someone has to keep fighting

On 18 November, the couple’s concerns materialised. Ennarah was sitting in a restaurant in the Red Sea town when he was arrested by the authorities.

During a four-hour investigation, security forces confiscated his laptop, phone and personal belongings and ordered his pre-trial detention for 15 days on charges of “joining a terrorist group”, “using a social media account to spread false news” and “spreading false news”. The prosecutor said the charges were based on security investigations showing that Ennarah “agreed with a group inside prisons to spread false rumours that could undermine public peace and public safety.”

Ennarah is not alone – Patrick George Zaki, a human rights activist who had previously worked with EIPR, and the organisation’s executive director Gasser Abed El Razek have also been arrested.

“When Patrick Zaki was detained in February, it was a huge shock for everyone,” said Kelly. “We discovered that they had interrogated him and had asked about Karim by name.”

Despite this worrying development, Ennarah did not flinch.

“Karim is someone who is not going to run away from anything until he is forced to,” said Kelly. “We spoke about how it wasn’t safe for him but he just was never going to give up this role. There are not many people who can take it one, he would say, someone has to keep fighting.”

He loves Egypt the most

Kelly has not been able to speak with Ennarah or get him a message since his arrest a week ago but she believes emphatically that he will be strong.

“Karim is very resilient and very pragmatic,“ said Kelly. “He will be confident that he has the best people working on his case get him out. He is very strong-willed but I think it is going to be very hard for him to think about his mum and me. He wouldn’t have wanted me to put my life on hold but I can’t think of anything else.”

Kelly speaks to Ennarah’s mother regularly. “When we talk, she seems pretty strong. She is proud of him. She says to me, ‘He is the person who loves Egypt the most. How could they level these accusations against him?’”

Kelly believes that applying pressure now – before there is a trial or sentencing – offers the best chance of getting him free. Some 90,000 people have already signed a petition started by Kelly to UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab calling for the UK government to demand his release.

Next Monday is Ennarah’s 38th birthday and it will be a difficult day for Kelly and Ennarah’s family.

“Just two months ago when we got married we were dreaming of our future together. Now I don’t even know when I’ll get to see him again,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to have him by my side. Now our life together has been crushed.”

She says the charges against Ennarah are totally unfounded.

“His only crime is to dare to believe that Egyptians deserve the most basic of human rights.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”4060″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Why the arrest of Egypt’s Gasser Abed El Razek is so troubling

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115594″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]One of the most challenging things about working for Index is being exposed, on a daily basis, to the realities and the horrors of repressive regimes. Every day there is another murder of a journalist, a book banned, a student arrested, a people, like the Uighurs, imprisoned. The bad news seems never-ending.

We are a small team, but we work with correspondents and activists across the world and every time we learn of a new arrest or attack there is that moment of fear – do we know them? When were we last in touch? What can we do? And if we don’t know them, it’s likely we know someone who does.

For every infringement, for every arrest, for every murder there is also an element of guilt – what more should we have done? When was the last time we focused on that country, on that fight? On that repressive regime? When did we last use our voices for them?

This was absolutely the case last night, when reports started to emerge from Cairo about the arrest of Gasser Abed El Razek, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The details are sketchy but it seems that Razek was arrested at his house in Cairo’s Maadi neighbourhood and no one knows where he has been taken.

This is the third arrest of EIPR staff in recent days;  their ‘crime’ – briefing European diplomats on the current state of human rights in Egypt.

Administrative director Mohammed Basheer was arrested on Sunday while criminal justice unit director Karim Ennarah was arrested while on holiday on Wednesday.

All have been charged with joining a terrorist group, spreading fake news and other financing terrorism.  All are now under pre-trial detention, in theory for 15 days, but under Egyptian law it could be two years.

There are currently 60,000 political prisoners thought to be incarcerated in Egypt.

We know that because organisations like the EIPR make sure that we do. The EIPR is one of the few remaining independent NGOs reporting on human rights in Egypt. And Razek has been one of the leading voices exposing human rights violations both in Egypt and across the Middle East for over 20 years. These arrests are not just an attack on free speech, but on the global community fighting for our collective human rights.

We stand with Gasser Abed El Razek, Mohammed Basheer and Karim Ennarah and we will keep reporting on them until they are freed.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]