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Above criticism: Lebanon’s army and the national media

For many Lebanese publications, criticising the army is seen as unproductive. Human rights organisations disagree
A unit of the Lebanese army drives into the city of Arsal near the Syrian border on 2 February 2013 (AFP)

Picture this: a man with a head wrap and a beard nervously slots together the component parts of a bomb of some sort. Anxiously peering outside to make sure he is not being watched, he is alarmed to see that the area is swarming with people of all ages and backgrounds dressed head-to-toe in military attire. Turning to run back to his hiding place, he is confronted by soldiers with guns. He kneels in surrender. Game over.

This is not a scene from a Hollywood movie, this is a recent advert for the Lebanese army, ending with the solidarity-inspiring slogan: "We are all an army against terrorism."

Now picture this: Around 30 men lie face down in a line on the dusty ground as soldiers in the same green-and-brown camouflage uniform from the previous video slowly walk up and down, shouting at their prisoners. One soldier goes up to a detainee who is missing the lower half of his left leg and steps on the stump.

“Does this hurt you?” he demands of his captive, before pressing the butt of his assault rifle into the back of the man's neck. “Does it, you piece of shit?”

This is not an advert; this is a video that emerged last September, purportedly showing the military abusing Syrians detained in the Arsal area, northeastern Lebanon, where troops were engaged in a large battle with the Islamic State (IS) and the al-Nusra Front just a month before. (More than 30 security personnel were kidnapped as a consequence, four of whom were later beheaded.)

And this is not the only report of its kind. In the last few years, the Lebanese Army has repeatedly been accused of similar acts: mistreatment of Syrian refugees arrested during raids on camps last September; the death of a man while in custody following clashes in Abra, Lebanon in 2013; and being involved in the "pervasive" practice of torture

Yet mainstream Lebanese media outlets largely opt not to cover allegations of army wrongdoing. Instead, the focus is on depicting the army as a source of pride, a rare point of unity in a fractured country.

"We didn't cover those videos," admitted Abbas Saleh, national security editor at mainstream daily paper an-Nahar, referring to the video of alleged army abuses in Arsal and a similar one from Abra in 2013.

"We might have mentioned them in a sentence in a news piece, but we didn't give them the importance we should have," he told Middle East Eye.

"At that time the Lebanese army was fighting those terrorists for all Lebanese, so it would be wrong ... to move the spotlight from the war on terrorism to an abuse that a few members of the army may have committed," he said with a shrug from the central Beirut office of one of Lebanon's most respected newspapers.

"That doesn't mean it [the alleged abuses] is acceptable," he added emphatically. "But ... we have a patriotic point of view, all of us here, and we believe we should focus on the brave things the army is doing."

Saleh's point of view is common among Lebanese of all walks of life. Publicly critiquing an institution that is so well-loved and respected, particularly at a time when they are fighting violent militant groups such as IS and the al-Nusra Front that want to invade Lebanon, is seen as heavily taboo. And it's not that there is direct censorship by the Army, according to Saleh and media freedom watchdog Maharat, but rather a general consensus that some things should not be said.

"There are limits - I know by myself when I should stop and when I can write about something. We know where the red line is and we respect it," Saleh said.

This process of societal self-censoring was demonstrated for all to see last September when well-known Al Jazeera TV talk show host Faisal al-Qassim tweeted that the Lebanese army's only achievements were making video clips with famous Lebanese singers and setting fire to Syrian refugee camps.

His comments led to heavy backlash on social media, a protest outside the station's office in Beirut, a brief ban on Al Jazeera's transmission in Lebanon, and a lawsuit against al-Qassim on charges of “undermining the prestige of the state and weakening national sentiment", and a violation of the country's penal code.

Saleh said he believed this was fair, adding: "It's OK to criticise a person or a few people, but not the whole institution ... The army is the only thing that is left in this country that has some goodness in it. If we criticise it what else is left?"

The media's special treatment of the country's security apparatus was the subject of a recent study by watchdog Maharat, who monitored related news in TV news bulletins and the print versions of newspapers in Arabic, English and French for 20 days in November 2014.

"Negative media coverage by both TV stations and press didn't exceed three percent of the total [security-related] coverage," Tony Mikhael, director of the organisation's Media Monitoring Centre, told MEE.

He sighed as he looked out of his office window onto the busy road below, where street vendors weaved in and out of the usual traffic jams.

"Also there is no investigative reporting - just two out of 113 security-related reports," he said. "This shows that the media doesn't criticise or make any effort to verify the statements of the Army or the ISF [Internal Security Forces]. Usually they just copy-paste the statement and leave it at that."

Further, the group found that stories related to assessing the performance of security departments accounted for less than one percent of the relevant coverage on TV channels and around two percent in newspapers. 

Like Saleh, Mikhael argued that the current security situation, which has seen Lebanon suffer through spates of suicide bombings and border incursions, had forced the media to show more solidarity than usual with the army, reflecting popular sentiment.

"Some soldiers have been kidnapped, others beheaded - there is solidarity with the army, and the media shows the same trend," he said. "There is a hidden consensus between the two sides that the media won't harm the security bodies, and that the security departments will not interfere in their work."

As a result, following up on allegations of abuse is left to those outside the press. Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to the army detailing credible evidence they found of mistreatment and torture of detainees, as well as a death in custody in the wake of clashes with supporters of radical preacher Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Abra in July 2013.

"There was no response," a HRW spokesperson told MEE. "Although they did subsequently issue a press release saying they were following up on the case."

The spokesperson, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said they were not aware of the outcome of any ensuing investigation.

The army did not respond to requests for comment on this issue, nor on the subject of the media's coverage of such incidents.

"We understand they are facing difficult circumstances and need to maintain security but they need to do that in accordance with international law," the HRW spokesperson added.

"At the end of the day, this is about holding people accountable and strengthening the institution and improving access to justice."

This view was echoed by those who spoke out against the army following the raids on refugee camps in the Arsal area last autumn.

"The army is apparently committing violations against refugees without any hesitations whatsoever and so far nothing has happened to imply that these practices were individual violations," wrote Diana Moukalled, web editor at a major Lebanese station Future Television, in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. "More importantly, this happened with a lack of political and media coverage and disapproving voices remained faint."

She concluded: "But hold on, our dear Lebanese army. This is not how you protect a country. This is how you destroy it, or at least how you destroy what is left of it."

Although the reasoning behind the suppression of an honest discussion of such instances is clear, analysts agree that it is not helpful for Lebanon.

"[The army's] campaign against Sunni extremists, resulting in often indiscriminate raids and attacks, and its human rights abuses are fuelling resentment among some Sunni segments [of Lebanese society] and Syrian refugees," Sahar Atrache, Lebanon analyst with the International Crisis Group, told MEE. "I think that in these cases its performance compounds the radicalism it claims to combat."

"Silencing criticism is not the answer," she continued. "Instead, abuses should be highlighted and the army should assume its responsibility, act as an institution (not a militia), and hold its members accountable."

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