Lebanese activists took to social media on November 16, 2016 to show solidarity with photojournalist Hussein Baydoun after he was forbidden from covering political events involving Prime Minister Saad Hariri at Beit Al Wasat, the PM's famed mansion.
Baydoun, who works at London-based news outlet The New Arab, was told that the ban was put in place due to an ‘unofficial photograph’ he took and published, in which Hariri has one finger in his mouth.
Hussein took the controversial photograph at the end of a press conference held on October 20, 2016, in Beit al Wasat, in which Hariri announced his backing of the candidacy of Michel Aoun to the presidency. Later that month, the parliament elected Aoun as the 13th president of Lebanon.
On Twitter, Baydoun posted the photo with a short comment in Lebanese Arabic that says “for you” (literal translation: “for your eyes”).
Photo:Hussein baydoun pic.twitter.com/KdrTwdJ3xI
— hussein baydoun (@PhotographyHB) October 20, 2016
Wael Yaman, who manages the PM's website and heads the Digital and Social Media Department at the Future Movement (the political party led by Hariri), admitted on Twitter that Hussein wasn't allowed to enter Beit al Wasat before adding that:
@ghazayel@CMPaso@saadhariri the prob is not with the photo rather than the way it was promoted and distributed with a silly caption
— Wael Yaman (@WaelYaman) November 16, 2016
Yaman continued to stand by the PM's decision under the pretext that such bans have also been issued in other democratic countries:
@CMPaso @ghazayel @saadhariri democracy loll, now ur funny! Even in the White House they can allow x or y journalist to attend it or not
— Wael Yaman (@WaelYaman) November 16, 2016
In that same conversation, Mahmoud Ghazayel, a journalist at the UAE newswebsite 20fourMedia, defended the PM's decision by saying:
@CMPaso @WaelYaman @saadhariri we can't compare a home with a govermental institute.
— محمود غزيّل (@ghazayel) November 16, 2016
But another activist, who tweets at @CMPaso, pointed out that Hariri uses his mansion as a political headquarters and cannot, therefore, be considered a ‘private residence’ during events such as press conferences, which are of public interest:
@ghazayel@WaelYaman@saadhariri he is using it as a political headquarter. It's not completely private.He's not hosting a friend for dinner
— Paso (@CMPaso) November 16, 2016
The media office of the PM soon changed their position and told Baydoun that one of the reasons behind the ban placed on him was that they had restricted the event to “permanent” reporters only.
“Permanent reporters” are those who cover media events at the Parliament, the Presidential Palace, or the Government Palace. Usually, media outlets decide on the journalists and photojournalists they want in those places, who are then granted press passes by the relevant authority.
The PM's media office circulated this among mainstream media as well, claiming that Hussein had never been to Beit al Wasat. Baydoun told us he found “ironic” since this was the site in which he took the controversial photograph. He even shared with Global Voices another photo from the same day, in which he appears in a group with PM Hariri and other photojournalists at Beit al Wasat:
Baydoun also told Global Voices that there were no prior e-mails sent restricting the event to permanent reporters. He maintains that the restriction was only put in place after he was forbidden from doing his job.
As for Beit El Wasat, media outlets are usually asked to send the names of the their journalists who will cover an event there, “for security reasons”.
Ironically, the PM himself gave another reason for the ban, contradicting his own media team.
Hariri's representatives have said that the photograph, which was supposedly the reason behind banning Baydoun from accessing Beit el Wasat, was actually taken by another photojournalist, Ali Alloush. In fact, both photojournalists captured the same shot but from different angles.
Ali's photograph, which was taken for news outlet Al Modon appears on the right. Baydoun's is on the left.
Luckily for Baydoun, his newspaper, the New Arab, is supporting him, a privilege that other journalists do not have. In Baydoun's words:
I am fortunate that my newspaper is next to me, offering full support, but not all journalists are offered that. So, we need to have a real photojournalists’ syndicate that fights for our rights. The syndicate's chairman Aziz Taher is really nice, but despite all the viral posts today and the case that has been the talk of the town, he did not talk to me yet.
Baydoun does not belong to any political party, he tells Global Voices. He has his own political views, but he does not share them on Facebook. He even likes Saad Hariri's character. “He's a young man, just like us, who like to take selfies, and is a sportsman as well. I like Saad Hariri's character,” he said.
The photos he takes are not without political impact. His photographs taken during last year's ‘you stink’ protests against government corruption were featured in numerous outlets.
One of his most influential photos depicts a wall put up by the authorities to keep protesters away from the Grand Serail, the Governmental Palace. On one side of the wall, a member of Lebanese security forces stands alone, while on the other side hundreds of citizens are protesting.
Baydoun is not afraid to take any photo but, he says he is really bothered by what he described as Lebanon's “ugly” censorship:
I'm trying to change the pictures and the concept..I'm a photojournalist, and it is due to my photographs during the recent protests that I have become known among other photojournalists.
Frustrated at the reality of photojournalism in Lebanon, he wonders:
What shall we tell students when they ask us what photojournalism is about?…Yeah a lot of photographers take pictures of politicians, but they don't post photos like the ones I took, because they need protection and money…I understand them, but I'm like them... I have bills, bank credit that I must pay, and I'm in a dangerous zone now. Till now my newspaper is beside me, other newspapers get rid of their photographers.
Despite the multiple pretexts given by the PM and his media team, Baydoun has continued to receive an outpouring of support on his Facebook page. Sara Sbeity wrote:
وقت رئيس الحكومة يخاف من المصوّر
When the prime minister fears the photojournalists
Another message of support was by Adam Hala Chamseddine, who wrote:
يذكر ان الراحل غسان تويني قاطع تغطية أي من نشاطات رئيس الجمهورية الراحل الياس الهرواي بعد أن أهان أحد المصورين في النهار على إثر التقاطه صورة أزعجت القصر، فما كان من الهرواي الا الاعتذار من المصور لكي تقبل النهار بالعودة الى أروقة القصر.
The late Ghassan Tueni (head of Annahar newspaper and a veteran Lebanese journalist), refused to cover activies of the late President Elias Hrawi after the president insulted one of Annahar's photographers, following the publication of a photograph that he found bothersome. Hrawi later apologized to the photographer, and Annahar newspaper thus began covering activities happening at the presidential palace again.
Today, Lebanese citizens do not expect acts of apology like that of the late president Hrawi towards Annahar newspaper. But that a politician can feel free to forbid a journalist from doing his or her job is something which many consider a red line. Baydoun's experience has left many to wonder if the syndicate of photojournalists will defend the rights of photojournalists if incidents like this arise in the future.