LONDON: Lebanese news anchor Layal Alekhtiar is the latest victim of a Hezbollah-led campaign to silence free media in and out of the country.
The journalist, who works for US State Department-funded Alhurra, received death threats via text following an incitement campaign launched by viewers loyal to Hezbollah. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told Arab News that these threats must be investigated.
The campaign comes after Alekhtiar tweeted a video of the unveiling of the newly erected statue of the late Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani with a line from Ayat Al-Anbya (The Prophets) from the Qur’an that said: “What are these statues to which you are so devoted?”
— Layal Alekhtiar - ليال الاختيار (@layal_alekhtiar) January 5, 2021
Alekhtiar told Arab News: “I didn’t provoke them specifically in any way, all I did was place this Ayat as a matter of freedom of speech, nothing more. I didn’t demean them, nor did I do it in any impolite way.
“So, they let their whole army loose on me, and all those from Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen and all their news channels and I didn’t understand why, there is nothing to it.
“I tweeted the Ayat regarding the statues because what grabbed my attention was that there were Shiite religious men there. Anyway, to me, any statue that would be erected for someone not Lebanese — especially since he has a political agenda — paid by the Lebanese, should not be placed. Whoever it may be, not just Qassem Soleimani,” she said.
Shortly after, a senior member of the Israeli Army tweeted the same Ayat which added fuel to the fire.
“So, they begin to create a link between my tweet and his and they begin to photoshop both tweets together and spread it and say that I am a foreign agent and that I am an Israeli spy,” she added.
Speaking to Arab News, Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said: “the use of online harassment against women journalists is abhorrent tactic that aims to silence their reporting and opinions.
“Threats by non state actors and their supporters online must not go unnoticed and must be throughly investigated.”
Alekhtiar is not the first journalist to be harassed and targeted by Hezbollah and accused of spying for Israel and will surely not be the last — this includes Lebanese journalists who are also Shiite Muslims, but don’t agree with Hezbollah’s political beliefs.
Late last year, journalist Luna Safwan, who happens to be Shiite, was subjected to an online abuse campaign after her tweet criticizing Hezbollah was carried by an Israeli news channel and she was accused of cooperating with Israel.
Similarly, Lebanese journalist Maryam Seif Eddine, known for her staunch criticism of Hezbollah despite being Shiite, had been issued death threats by the group while her mother and brother were physically assaulted, the latter being left with a broken nose. Hezbollah loyalists had targeted her family home in Burj El-Barajneh, in the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut.
Before that, as the country witnessed unprecedented nationwide protests in 2019, former LBC news anchor Dima Sadek, another Shiite journalist, was subjected to harassment by the Lebanese militia group after her phone was stolen from her during a demonstration. The harassment, she said, was followed by insulting and threatening phone calls to her mother, who suffered a stroke as a result of the stress.
And prior to that, MTV television reporter Nawal Berry, also a Shiite, suffered violent attacks by supporters of Hezbollah and its allies while covering the early days of the protests. Loyalists smashed her team’s camera, snatched the microphone she was holding, spat on her, and kicked her in the leg.
Alekhtiar said: “Now, they continued with their campaign, but the principle is that we, in Lebanon, the foundation is freedom of expression and the democracy that puts it apart from other countries.
“We don’t want to become a part of another country, nor do we want the nationality of our country to change no matter who is coming.”
Activist and journalist Ali Al-Amin, who claimed that he had been attacked on more than one occasion by Hezbollah-linked people, in a previous interview told Arab News: “Hezbollah has always resorted to accusing its opponents of working for Israel, the US, or foreign embassies.
“It has mobilized its electronic armies to launch (online) campaigns against them over the past 15 years. There is much evidence for this.”
Alekhtiar, who remains unfazed by the threats, said: “An opinion must stay an opinion, no matter what happens, because without freedom of expression, journalism has no point, and the media has no point.”