The disturbances on the streets of Brussels following several Morocco World Cup games in December have likely been forgotten by many, but for one journalist who was arrested while covering the incidents, they are not yet a thing of the past.
Following the World Cup match between France and Morocco on 14 December, journalist Yassin Akouh went to Lemonnier to report on the disturbances which, as had happened following previous games, broke out on the fringes of mass celebrations. He ended up in a police cell, despite repeatedly identifying himself as a journalist.
Before being arrested, Akouh was pushed to the ground, his hands were tied behind his back, and an officer asked for his press card. "I was handcuffed but passed him my press card out of my pocket. He looked at it and literally started laughing," Akouh said at the time, adding that the officer threatened that he would be sued if he published any images.
On 23 January, he received an official letter from the Brussels-Capital/Ixelles police zone informing him that he would be fined up to €350 for "participating in the riots."
"We regret the arbitrary behaviour of the police towards Yassin and call on the police in Brussels not to fine him for being present at the riots, as he was there as a journalist and had clearly identified himself as such," Pavol Szalai, Head of EU/Balkans Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told The Brussels Times.
Right to report
Akouh's case was recorded by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom's Mapping Media Freedom. It describes how he was "aggressively grabbed by the neck," a detail which was confirmed by Akouh, who told The Brussels Times that he went to the doctor the next day because of the pain. "In the days after, I suffered from a sore neck and skin irritation due to the use of pepper spray."
The Council of Europe put out a warning about the incident on its platform for the safety of journalists. The police confirmed to Szalai that they had received the CoE's warning and sent a reply to the Council to "frame the arrest."
When outlining it to RSF, the police noted that at the time of the incident, Akouh was in the midst of the "encirclement set up by the intervention forces" referring to a technique also known as kettling where protesters are surrounded and completely shut off from others, one that was deemed illegal by France's Council of State.
Video shows Akouh was singled out by the police during similar disturbances just several days before his arrest.
According to the police, the "necessary legal warnings to leave the premises had already been issued." Akouh said he was positioned further away from the police, while people were shouting and letting off fireworks around him, meaning he did not hear these warnings.
In the footage he shot, Akouh walked among the police, who did not send him away until they started surrounding the crowd, at which point the police would no longer let him out.
Szalai stressed that whether Akouh had heard the warnings or not, as a journalist, he had the right to be there, "not only to cover the incident itself but also the police operation as a result of this." The police confirmed that he tried to identify himself as a journalist but argued that "he was not in possession of a valid document," which was rebuked by Akouh, who was carrying his Flemish Journalists Association (VJV) card.
"I regret that the police did not explain fully why Yassin had to be arrested and why he had to be fined. Also, the police failed to explain the behaviour of one of their officers who behaved violently toward him, behaviour which we denounce," Szalai said.
Akouh, who noted the whole situation has completely exhausted him, added that the police's handling of him made him worry about the state of press freedom in the country. "It is such a sad thing that journalists cannot do their work freely."
Belgium ranked in 23rd place in RSF's World Press Freedom Index last year. "From a country that is ranked relatively high, we do expect high standards for treating journalists during demonstrations and more generally when they are at work," Szalai said.
According to Charlotte Lavin from the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), data recorded on the MMF platform shows there has been an increase in police violence against journalists, which "seems to be linked to the increasing number of protests or demonstrations."
Szalai noted that while the situation regarding police violence against journalists has improved and the authorities in Belgium are trying to make improvements in general, RSF continues to record such cases every year. "For a democratic European and internationally exposed country like Belgium, even a few cases of arbitrary violence against journalists are too many."
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Both Lavin and Szalai called for improved dialogue between press and police forces, and for them to be better informed on journalists' rights in such situations. "What’s really important is that representatives of journalists and police become partners and can have structural dialogues to better understand each other’s jobs. The police need to understand how reporters work and that in some cases, they have a special status," Szalai noted.
In its communications with RSF, the police zone involved noted that it "intends to maintain smooth cooperation with journalists, and is planning to set up such a dialogue to ensure the "safe handling of journalists" – a statement welcomed by Szalai, even if it is a little too late. "They should already have such a mechanism."
"In the meantime, I fail to understand why the mistake is not clear to the police because it was simply a reporter who wants to cover the events and could not continue in his mission because of the sanctions of the police. These sanctions have to stop, they have no place in Belgium," he concluded.