BEIRUT: An online publication reported being raided by an armed police squad Monday, the same day international politicians warned of free speech crackdowns on the anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Hazem al-Amin, co-founder and editor-in-chief of online newspaper Daraj, said in a statement published on social media late Monday that around 10 armed officers from the Internal Security Forces raided the publication’s premises shortly after he had been visited by a detective.
The raid comes as civil society activists in Lebanon warned of a crackdown on freedom of expression, prompting U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression to write to the Lebanese government earlier this year to express his concern.
The issue is not confined to Lebanon. Speaking Monday on the occasion of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini said in a statement, “Around the world, pressure is increasing against freedom of speech.”
While journalists and activists are increasingly summoned to the ISF for questioning, it was the manner of Amin’s arrest that was unusual, said SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom Executive Director Ayman Mhanna. “The idea that the police could be involved in sending a squad of armed men to take a journalist for investigation is itself a scandal,” he said.
An ISF spokesperson said he had “no information” about the raid in response to a request from The Daily Star for a comment.
According to Daraj co-founder Diana Moukalled, her colleague was questioned in relation to an article the newspaper published some months ago. Following publication of the article, Daraj was prosecuted by a plaintiff who claimed the story was false. The plaintiff subsequently dropped the case and the story remained online.
Moukalled said the ISF officers’ treatment of her colleagues, one of whom was reportedly handcuffed, during the raid was “very harsh.”
By contrast, Amin said in his statement that on arrival at the police station he was treated with “respect,” and he was released without charge two hours later.
Noting the disparity between the treatment of Amin at his workplace and in custody, Moukalled remarked upon “the way they have sent the message. I don’t think there is any need to send 10 armed officers to a journalist who is not accused of anything.”
Rather than being intimidated by the show of force, Moukalled said the incident could “push us to speak up, not to shut down.”
She noted that independent journalists were particularly at risk of persecution. “If you have any political party that stands by you, you are less vulnerable,” she said.
Mhanna agreed, saying that for independent journalists without political or sectarian backing, “the authorities believe they can do whatever they want because there’s absolutely no accountability for such behavior.”
He added: “Every day [there is] yet another level of erosion in the level of protection for independent journalism.”