Media freedoms assaulted in ‘classist’ Horsh Beirut

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Beirut's Pine Forest urban park. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Hadeel Farfour

Published Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Beirut Municipality is still unconvinced that Horsh Beirut, the Pine Forest urban park, is a public space. The issue is no longer about the municipality’s continued closure of the park, or about the fact that it has made its entry conditional, in contradiction with the most basic understanding of the notion of public space, namely, free access. No, the issue is the municipality’s “arrogant” practices, including its assault on media freedoms, by preventing journalists from covering an activity held in a public space. This happened while foreign persons and others with certain “class privileges” were present at the park, as though it is an exclusive club.

For a journalist to be barred from entering Horsh Beirut to cover an event taking place there is not only an assault on media freedoms – which have recently been suffering from increasing restrictions – but is also an arrogant act. The rationale for this can only be that Beirut Municipality somehow believes the park is its private property, where its staff can make discretionary decisions under protection from their superiors, namely, Mayor of Beirut Bilal Hamad, and the Governor of the city of Beirut Ziad Shabib.

The newly-appointed Director of Public Parks Maya Rahbani saw it fit to issue a decision preventing the entry of journalists with their cameras to cover an event organized by Nahnoo [We], an NGO, in the park on Saturday. Rahbani’s argument, according to what she told Al-Akhbar, is that “the approval signed by the governor did not include allowing a press conference to be held there.” Rahbani indicated that many journalists entered without their cameras, “as ordinary people.”

In truth, some media outlets, including Al-Akhbar, were able to enter the park, as participants in the event rather than reporters, while other journalists had to leave because the guards did not let them in.

It’s also worth noting that the letter sent by Nahnoo to the governor of Beirut on August 14, 2014 highlights the possibility of “journalists attending,” and the approval was subsequently granted on this basis.

The text of the approval did not state that journalists were not allowed to enter, but only noted that visitors should abide by “general cleanliness rules, not tamper with the facilities and fixtures, and maintain the integrity of the trees.”

In other words, Rahbani’s decision is not part of her jurisdictions, since the governor approved the journalists’ entry, and since, more importantly, the freedom of the press is enshrined in the constitution and the law. Yet the municipal official would not have acted in this manner had she not first obtained a green light from somewhere.

If Rahbani cannot see that journalists are “ordinary people” entitled to access their public property and cover events held there, then this is a problem. But if she was afraid that the media might get statements from Nahnoo activists, then this is an even bigger problem, reflecting her ignorance of the fact that those who want to interview activists inside the park, can just as easily do so outside of it.

Initially, Rahbani decided to prevent even the participants from entering, before she changed her mind after more than 30 minutes of negotiations. It seems that her decision was meant to teach the NGO a lesson, because its executive director Mohammed Ayoub had attacked the municipality days ago, in a statement he made to The Daily Star, according to what she told him in a phone conversation.

Although Rahbani’s powers do not include protecting the reputation of the municipality, she perhaps wanted to “get back” at him, since she had “given him no permission to attack the municipality,” again according to what she told Ayoub – bearing in mind that granting such permissions is also not part of her jurisdictions.

For his part, Ayoub said that he had not used any defamatory language against the municipality, but “only stated the facts preventing the opening of the park.” Ayoub deplored the way his NGO was dealt with, noting that some civil groups “approved by the municipality” had obtained permits in the past to hold events in the park without any harassment, contrary to what happened with his group.

Such discriminatory policies are nothing new for the Beirut Municipality. For instance, the municipality sets “classist” conditions for entry to the park under the pretext of protecting Horsh Beirut. At the same time, the municipality welcomes foreigners with open arms into the park, even as it declares it off-limits to the majority of Lebanese citizens looking for breathing space in the city.

Indeed, while the Beirut Municipal Police were busy frisking and preventing journalists from coming in with their cameras, and escorting those taking part in the event there – to make sure they don’t break anything, as one municipal police officer explicitly said – foreigners were entering the park without any problem. In fact, it was obvious that it was not the first time they were entering the park, and enjoying “our public property.”

So perhaps the friction between the municipal police and the participants at the event has to do with the municipality’s desire to teach them a classist and racist lesson. The municipal police were heard talking about “people who don’t deserve [to be there],” people who might “vandalize” the aesthetic place, or people who are “thugs” and who might cause trouble that harms the reputation of the park.

This is consistent with the remarks made previously by Mayor Hamad, who had suggested that the municipality was worried about the behavior of certain individuals who might vandalize the park, and who might breach public morals or turn the place into a place for shishas, as he said in a public debate organized by Nahnoo back in February 2012. In other words, Hamad does not want Horsh Beirut to be a public park, or more precisely, he is not enthusiastic about keeping it a public space and prefers to privatize it, in the sense of restricting if not completely blocking access to it.

The state of vigilance and alert among the Beirut Municipal Police at the park on Saturday was perhaps caused by the fact that they are not used to see this many citizens coming to exercise their right to access public property and explore their Pine Forest, at the invitation of Nahnoo, as part of its efforts to get the park reopened to the public. In effect, the park has been closed to the public for 12 years, and the municipality was supposed to reopen it in 2002.

“What is happening is truly disgraceful,” says environmental activist Raja Noujaim, who refused to enter the park in protest at the treatment of journalists who were prevented from entering, and the condescending attitude toward certain social segments who would allegedly vandalize the park, according to Beirut city officials.

This is while bearing in mind that many activists and experts agree that the most important factor influencing the behavior of visitors in a given place has to do with the guards and personnel in charge of maintaining and protecting the place. That is, whether or not a visitor cares for the public park depends on the adequate management of the venue.

Finally, the young men and women there entered the park “victorious.” One of the municipal police officers cried out a sarcastic remark about the activists’ enthusiasm, saying, “It’s as if they have arrived in Paris,” to which one activist replied, “For us, it’s much more important than that.” The police officer does not understand, perhaps, like many other citizens, that access to public spaces is a right. For the activists, entering the park is therefore a step on the way to restoring this right, which has been denied to the public for so long.

The activists insisted on proving that they were eager to care for their public park. They spread between the hills; some played music and sang under the trees, while others brought in rugs and sat on the ground playing cards. Others still brought their children and were running around with them.

They were all keen to take advantage of the three hours they were allowed there, to stress their right to have an outlet in the city that can link them to it and other residents, no matter their differences. “Because it brings people together, they don’t want to open it,” says Abbas, one of the participants at the event, underscoring the strategic location of the park between three “sensitive” areas of Beirut, where political tensions are rife.

Others believe the park has been closed off to “scrutinize” the people who want to enter, and to restrict access to certain segments. To them, this is consistent with the trend in Beirut to exploit public spaces while keeping broad segments of the population away, similarly to what is happening in Lebanon’s beaches and other areas, not to mention block any attempt by anyone to speak for these segments.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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