BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ A week-old confrontation over press freedom between the government and news media exploded today in a fight between hundreds of police and journalists.
The melee occurred in a courtroom during a hearing on the government’s attempt to shut down the leading opposition newspaper As-Safir, which has been critical of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Policemen arrested at least one news photographer, beat reporters with rifle butts and kicked several journalists despite Judge Afif Shamseddine’s vociferous objections.
″I’m the authority here. No one takes anyone to jail without my order,″ Shamseddine shouted from the bench after the scuffles broke out.
″Grab the dog. The major wants him,″ a policeman shouted as his colleagues tried to capture As-Safir’s photographer, Ali Alloush.
The confrontation began when a policeman slapped Alloush for taking what police said was an unauthoried picture. Alloush fought back, pushing the policeman, and the already tense atmosphere exploded.
Some 600 reporters, photographers, lawyers and students of law and journalism who had attended in support of the newspaper tried to prevent police from arresting Alloush.
The melee lasted for nearly 10 minutes. Alloush was taken away by police, and other journalists were detained in the courtroom for another 10 minutes, apparently to prevent them from following Alloush to a jail.
Parliament member Zaher al-Khatib, who also is one of As-Safir’s six attorneys, shouted: ″This is terrorism. Those policemen were planted by the government to obstruct justice. They know that justice will be in favor of the freedom of the press.″
Alloush later reappeared in court.
The judge recessed the case until July 1 after questioning two of As- Safir’s staff.
The Press Publishers Syndicate and Press Editors Syndicate had called on their members to attend the hearing to show support for freedom of the press and protest the suspension of publications before trial.
Three news organizations had been suspended in two weeks in a move unprecedented in Lebanon since independence from France in 1943. The government actions have raised fears that authorities are setting the stage to crack down on the freest press in the Arab world.
As-Safir resumed publication today after the government closed it for a week. It is charged with breaking the press law by publishing the alleged text of Israel’s proposal to the Lebanese delegation at the Middle East peace talks on withdrawing from southern Lebanon.
If convicted, the newspaper could face a shutdown of up to six months.
Also on trial is Nida al-Watan, a conservative newspaper that has been closed since April 30, a day after its twin Independent Company Network television was closed until further notice.
Nida al-Watan and the Independent Company Network were charged with ″instigating sectarian hatreds″ and face a maximum penalty of being closed down permanently.
All three organizations have been critical of the prime minister.