Reporters Without Borders has written to Lebanese information minister Ghazi Aridi urging him to do everything possible to obtain the release of New TV journalists Firas Hatoum and Abdel-Azim Khayat, and their driver Mohammed Barbar, who have been held since 19 December for entering the apartment of a key witness in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“These journalists have been in prison for a month now,” the press freedom organisation said. “We will remain on alert until they are freed. We call on the authorities to stop considering this as a criminal case. These three men are not thieves but journalists who were acting in a professional capacity. If they must be punished, then it should be done according to the press law.”
The staff of New TV, a satellite news station based in Beirut, staged a demonstration on 17 January outside the information ministry to demand the release of their colleagues. Other Lebanese journalists and cameramen participated in the protest.
Aridi refused to come out and talk to them, and he said in a statement that there was no possibility of intervening in the case because it was not a press freedom issue. He also said it was hurting the international investigation into Hariri’s assassination in February 2005.
New TV news director Mariam Bassam told Reporters Without Borders the authorities had no right to keep Hatoum, Khayet and Barbar locked up as they had just been doing their job as journalists. She said she was amazed by the rigidity of the justice ministry’s position on this case, especially as the station’s relations with the ministry had been good. The ministry had to be aware that the journalists’ intentions had not been bad, she said.
The three New TV employees were arrested on 19 December for entering the apartment of Mohammed Zouheir Siddik, a leading prosecution witness in the Hariri murder. They had obtained Siddik’s permission to go to his apartment and there was no sign outside saying it was forbidden to enter.
Instead of being prosecuted under the press law, they have been charged with theft under criminal law and face between three and eight years in prison.