Beirut, Lebanon – Habib Battah, a slight man, whose eyes are usually covered by a cap pulled low over his brow, is one of Lebanon’s most determined investigative journalists, much to the chagrin of many of those who have been the subjects of his reports.
An award-winning 15-year veteran of journalism in the Middle East and founder and editor of The Beirut Report, Battah dedicates much of his time to documenting events on the ground in Lebanon, particularly the rapidly decreasing public space in the country, as well as the destruction of some of its historical, cultural and archeological sites. But it is during these moments of documentation that he faces the greatest levels of harassment.
“There are many issues in Lebanon regarding the rights of a journalist, especially the right to film or photograph in public spaces,” he explains.
“I’ve been detained or assaulted by every major armed organisation in the country, and I’m talking [about] both state and non-state actors …. I’ve been threatened with lawsuits, and I’ve been physically attacked and threatened.”
Recounting one incident, at an archaeological site that was being destroyed in order for a development project to be constructed in its place, Battah describes how members of a private security firm assaulted him.
“They wanted me to stop taking pictures, so they locked me inside the site, jumped on me and wrestled me, threatened me, accused me of being a spy, until I deleted the photos of the ancient ruins they were building over,” he says.
“Honestly, the most dangerous people for journalists aren’t even the military or the government, but private capital,” he continues. “Even the police discouraged me from filing a lawsuit.”
Lebanon has seen a steady rise in private security firms, usually owned by or affiliated with powerful political. They often operate with impunity.
“The police know the case is unlikely to go anywhere because of the support and immunity these security firms have,” says Battah.
He has also had run-ins with non-state political actors; recently he was detained by Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s political parties with its own armed wing, in Dahiyeh, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, for taking a photo.
“The problem again lies with photography; there it is banned, but people should be able to document what is happening in different neighbourhoods,” Battah says. “At the same time, it is an area that is in the cross hairs, so it is operating in a conflict-like zone.”
Even journalist unions are politicised here, making every aspect of journalism political in some way or other.
The southern suburbs have long been a target for attacks; in 2006 Israel pummelled Dahiyeh during its 33-day war on Lebanon. More recently, the predominantly Shia area has experienced suicide bombings and explosions.
As a result, extra security has been deployed there – both by the state and by Hezbollah – to prevent further attacks.
For now, Battah prepares carefully before embarking on an assignment, whether that means assessing the safest route out of a dangerous situation, or taking the decision not to film or take photos.
“At the end of the day, my health is more important than any story,” he reflects.
The ‘myth’ of press freedom
But, for this journalist, the issue is just as theoretical as it is practical. He is convinced that the concept of press freedom, whether in the West or elsewhere, is a myth.
In Lebanon, for example, most news outlets are either owned by or affiliated with political figures or parties, making it nearly impossible to find non-bipartisan reporting on a local level.
“In Lebanon, every single news organisation is either funded or supported by a political figure, so naturally that news outlet will avoid any controversial discussion about them, essentially making them a tool of that political organisation,” he explains.
As a result, there is a lot of self-censorship, either because journalists working for specific news outlets are convinced that their political affiliates are above criticism, or simply because they do not want to risk losing their livelihoods by publishing a critical report.
“Even journalist unions are politicised here, making every aspect of journalism political in some way or another,” says Battah. “Therefore citizen journalism is more crucial than ever these days, and they’re doing a better job at uncovering injustices than your conventional journalist.”
Citing the recent examples of the Dalieh controversy – private companies appropriating public land on Beirut’s coast, resulting in the loss of homes and the livelihoods of fishermen who have been living there for decades – and the Fouad Boutros Highway, again using public space and demolishing architectural heritage in order to build a massive highway, Battah emphasises how the controversies surrounding the projects were brought to the public’s attention through the work of activists and citizen journalists, not that of major news outlets.
“A lot of the media did not follow up on these issues because the news outlets are in the pockets of the owners [of the controversial developments],” he elaborates.
Despite all of this, Battah does acknowledge that Lebanon enjoys a relatively high level of press freedom when compared with other countries in the region.
“What we do have here is a space for relative freedom because we don’t have a centralised state with a regime that controls all parts of the country,” he says.
Source: Al Jazeera