Beirut, Lebanon – Rights groups, lawyers, and journalists condemned authorities for obstructing the Beirut blast probe by “undermining facts”, accusing officials on Tuesday of leaking misinformation and intervening in the justice system.
Many political leaders in Lebanon have accused the lead investigating judge, Tarek Bitar, of not being impartial as he continues to charge and pursue senior officials and legislators for the enormous explosion that killed more than 200 people in August.
“The political rulers are using the media as a key tool to take down the Beirut Port blast probe,” said Jad Shahrour, with the Beirut-based rights watchdog Skeyes.
“And this is not the first time the political rulers use the media, which [they] control, and social media and influencers to do this.”
Political officials have lodged several unsuccessful legal complaints to remove Bitar from the investigation. Now, the Lebanese government says it will not convene over differences on how to resolve the situation, with Hezbollah and allies adamant on removing the judge immediately.
Lebanon’s media landscape is heavily controlled by political parties and leaders. At a news conference on Tuesday, the civil society coalition called for an end to what it described as “political campaigns” against the judiciary.
“There must be an end to political campaigns against judges as they violate the independence of the judiciary,” said Tony Mikhael, a lawyer and member of the rights organisation the Maharat Foundation.
“And they must avoid giving airtime for incitement and fake news campaigns over the investigation and the investigative judge, as well as vilifying him.”
More than 200 people were killed in the Beirut blast on August 4, 2020, after a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated.
The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. About 6,500 people were injured and entire neighbourhoods destroyed.
Since his appointment last February to lead the probe, Judge Bitar has repeatedly summoned for questioning and charged a handful of ex-ministers and top security officials. Rights organisations and much of the population have praised him.
However, Lebanon’s leaders from its mosaic of sectarian political parties have been extremely critical of Bitar, accusing his actions as being politically motivated or undermining the law while investigating the devastating blast.
Rima Zahed, sister of Amin Zahed, 42, who died in the explosion, told Al Jazeera the media has a crucial role to ensure people who lost family and friends see justice.
“It’s important that the honest media continues to amplify the voices of the families of the victims and martyrs of the Beirut Port, and to really show what is going on in the investigation to empower an impartial judiciary,” Zahed said.
She praised Judge Bitar in her brief statement and demanded authorities lift immunity for all officials charged and suspects he wants to interrogate.