Reporters Without Borders has condemned the continuing detention of New TV reporter Firas Hatoum, cameraman Abdel-Azim Khayat and driver Mohammed Barbar, who were arrested on 19 December 2006 for entering the apartment of a key prosecution witness in the February 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. New TV is a satellite news station based in Beirut.
“These three New TV employees pose absolutely no threat and should not have to remain in prison while awaiting the trial,” the press freedom organisation said. “The prosecutor’s reaction is utterly disproportionate and suggests that they are the victims of politically-motivated exploitation of the lack of definition in the legal status of broadcast journalists.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We appeal to the judicial authorities to regard this case as a press offence and to try it under the press law. We also call for the immediate provisional release of the two journalists and their driver, who have already spent more than a week in detention.”
The case stems from a report that Hatoum and Khayat did on Mohammed Zouheir Siddik, a leading witness in the Hariri murder, during which they went to his apartment in the south Beirut district of Khalde on 15 December.
The apartment had already been examined by the International Commission of Inquiry. Evidence had been removed and it has been closed for the past year. Reporters Without Borders has been told there was no sign outside the door saying it was forbidden to enter the apartment.
Hatoum and Khayat received Siddik’s permission to go to his apartment. Their phone conversation was broadcast on New TV. They went with the building’s manager and security guard, who let them enter through a window as they did not have a key. The manager and guard have also been charged as accomplices.
A plain-clothes police officer with the job of keeping the apartment under surveillance watched the two journalists as they filmed it without intervening. It was only after the report was broadcast on 19 December that High Court Prosecutor Said Mirza ordered the arrest of the three New TV employees, the building manager and the security guard.
They have been charged with theft under criminal law, rather than under press law, and face between three and eight years in prison. They are being held in Roumie prison in northeast Beirut.