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For journalists in Lebanon, Syrian dangers loom larger

Lebanese army soldiers and residents gather at the site of an explosion in Nabi Osmane in the Bekaa Valley on March 17. (Reuters/Hassan Abdallah)

The recent kidnapping of two journalists in Lebanon is the latest and most troubling evidence that the press is in increasing danger as the Syrian civil war spills over into Lebanese politics.

According to news reports, Danish journalist Jeppe Nybroe and Lebanese-Palestinian journalist Rami Aysha were freed March 6 after almost a month in captivity. They were abducted in the border town of Arsal, located on a key smuggling route for Syrian rebel forces, as they were preparing a report on journalist kidnappings inside Syria.

Many details about the abduction remain unclear, including who exactly kidnapped the journalists. Aysha told CPJ he believes but cannot be certain that the journalists were smuggled into Syrian territory, where there was constant nearby shelling and they suffered poor treatment at the hands of their captors.

Aysha, an experienced journalist in Lebanon and Syria, also told CPJ that kidnapping inside Lebanese territory was a "real escalation" that should be a "warning" for journalists operating in the area. I unfortunately have to agree.

For years, the Lebanese media have enjoyed greater freedom than almost all of their counterparts in the region. Journalists can at least partially thank an environment of cultural and economic freedom that pervades Lebanese society. But it is also the unintended consequence of the country's unique political landscape.

Under the Lebanese confessional system, the offices of government are carefully allocated in an attempt to share power proportionally between the country's divided population of 18 officially recognized sects. For example, the president must always be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the speaker of parliament Shia.

The confessional system has provided both opportunities and risks for Lebanese journalists. The press is also largely divided along confessional lines.

"When you go after a journalist, you often end up going after the political camp with which he or she is associated, or his or her publication associated," Lebanese political commentator Michael Young told me in an interview in Beirut last summer. "That can even apply to journalists who try to remain independent."

Pockets of press freedom exist in Lebanon so long as journalists remain within the confines of the confessional system. "Journalists feel protected by their side, but independent journalists are the ones who are really at risk," Lebanese lawyer Nizar Saghieh told me on the same trip. "These people are rare, the objective people."

Effectively, there is no such thing as a Lebanese state that acts uniformly, as each faction seeks its own interest. On the one hand, this means the government is too ineffective to execute an Egyptian-style crackdown on the press. On the other hand, it means journalists are on their own if they need protection against another faction-whether the aggressor is working within the government or beyond it. 

"Lebanon has a very serious problem with impunity," Saghieh said. "We are talking about people who are very powerful. Are you going to prosecute Hezbollah? People will laugh at the government."

The past three years of civil war in Syria have increased tensions among the different factions. Recent tit-for-tat attacks and bombings inside Lebanon have especially heightened anxiety, with armed non-state actors sometimes casting their suspicion on journalists attempting to cover the violence. The result is higher costs for journalists who don't observe the rules of the confessional game and an even greater inability of the government to protect them.

Since the war in Syria began in 2011, the Beirut-based press freedom group SKeyes has documented 136 assault cases against journalists, intellectuals, and activists. More than 75 percent of those assaults have been committed by non-state actors.

Hezbollah forces in particular have assaulted and detained journalists, especially in the aftermath of a series of bombings in retribution for its armed intervention in support of the Assad regime. For example, Hezbollah gunmen detained American journalist Josh Wood as he was trying to cover a bombing of a Shia neighborhood in August 2013. Wood tweeted that one Hezbollah gunman "chambered a round and put his AK to the back of my neck." He said soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces watched and did nothing as Hezbollah fighters dragged Wood away.

Aysha's own experiences in the past two years reveal just how the Syrian war has led to a direct deterioration of press freedom in Lebanon. In August 2012, Aysha was detained by Hezbollah forces while reporting on arms smuggling to Syria. Aysha told CPJ he was beaten while in Hezbollah custody and again when he was eventually transferred to government custody. And two years later, he found himself once again in custody while attempting to report on the conflict--this time in an area generally supportive of the rebel side.

The kidnapping in Arsal is the latest escalation, but with no end in sight to the war in Syria, it may not be the last. Of the five journalists killed in Lebanon in the past decade, three were killed in direct relation to their work on Syria, according to CPJ research. The fear is that number may yet rise as Lebanon is further dragged into the regional conflicts that surround it. 

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