Since 1990, when Lebanon began its recovery from 15 years of civil war and political strife, the country’s press has struggled to regain its formerly dominant position in Middle East journalism. A variety of private newspapers and radio and television stations exist today, many offering generally solid news coverage and criticism of the government. But state legal harassment, intimidation of journalists, and self-censorship persist as serious obstacles to the free flow of information.
In August, authorities initiated legal actions against a number of journalists for covering the controversial book From Israel to Damascus, written by Robert Hatem, the onetime bodyguard of exÐLebanese Christian warlord, former minister, and current member of Parliament Elie Hobeika. The book is an unauthorized biography of Hobeika that contains sordid allegations of philandering, torture, and assassination.
In August, publisher and local press-union head Milhem Karam was charged with defamation and violating a ban against publishing excerpts from the book after he ran an interview with Hatem in a number of his publications, including the Arabic-language magazine Al-Hawadeth and the French-language Revue du Liban. State prosecutors also charged Paul Salem, owner of the monthly magazine Lebanon Report, and Jamil Mroue, the magazine’s publisher, after he published an article about the book. Although the cases were technically pending at year’s end, authorities seemed reluctant to pursue them, perhaps because they were embarrassed by the protests of local journalists.
Lebanese journalists remain vulnerable to a host of vaguely worded criminal statutes. In particular, criminal-libel laws have been used frequently against newspapers that criticized government officials or foreign heads of state. Such cases are tried in felony courts. Although there is no censorship of the local press, the internal security agency screens foreign publications entering the country and has banned the distribution of media that report unfavorably on local affairs.
Like the print media, television and radio are subject to restrictive laws, such as Decree 7997 of 1996, which bans stations from broadcasting news that, in the judgment of authorities, seeks to “inflame or incite sectarian or religious chauvinism” or contains “slander, disparagement, disgrace, [or] defamation.” The Audiovisual Law (1994) empowers the Ministry of Information to close television and radio stations that violate such statutes.
In 1998, the government reversed its ban on news programs transmitted abroad by Lebanese satellite-television channels–a move that was triggered by a talk-show program during which a member of Parliament harshly criticized the prime minister then, Rafik al-Hariri. But news broadcasts reportedly still remain subject to prior censorship.
In August, the Lebanese Broadcasting Authority threatened to suspend the private Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) for violating government guidelines barring coverage of official Israeli events. The station had aired a news item that quoted Israeli foreign minister David Levy urging Lebanon to join the peace process. Levy made this comment to an LBCI reporter in Jordan on the occasion of an Israeli-Jordanian ceremony marking the opening of a bridge between the two countries. The government did not follow through on its threat, but LBCI said that it was taking disciplinary measures against its Amman bureau.
Lebanese journalists were not immune to violent attack. On October 11, a group of Lebanese photojournalists, working with the local and foreign media, were assaulted by Lebanese soldiers joined by security guards from a fertilizer factory in the northern town of Selaata. Some of the journalists’ cameras were damaged or confiscated during the melee. They had been accompanying a group of activists from the environmental organization Greenpeace who were attempting to stage a peaceful protest at the factory, which they accused of polluting Lebanese waters.
Syria’s controversial military presence, which critics dubbed an “occupation,” continued to exert a negative impact on press freedom. The memories of 1976, when Syrian troops occupied and temporarily closed the offices of several newspapers upon their arrival in Beirut, are still fresh in the minds of most Lebanese journalists. Several journalists who criticized Assad’s regime in the early eighties were mysteriously assassinated in Beirut. As a result, self-censorship in reporting about Syrian affairs remained widespread. Local media have cited the reports of international human-rights groups on Syria, but Lebanese journalists steer clear of direct criticism that could trigger Syrian retaliation.
Some Lebanese journalists contend that a continued Syrian presence in the country will further stunt Lebanon’s ability to attain the high level of press freedom enjoyed before the 1975 civil war. “[Lebanon] will not be able to regain its position as a leading center for [regional] journalism as long as the Syrians are there,” said one longtime Lebanese reporter. “There will always be a ceiling on freedoms.” The same journalist contended that the Lebanese “lament the fact that we don’t have something like Al-Jazeera [the Qatar-based satellite news channel]. We have all the talent and professional capabilities, but even stations like LBCI can’t compete with Al-Jazeera in terms of news. They don’t have the freedom.”
Ilan Roeh, Israel Radio KILLED
Roeh, 32, was a reporter with Israel Radio. He was killed along with three Israeli military personnel when a roadside bomb exploded in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon.
Roeh, a veteran correspondent who had covered south Lebanon for five years, was traveling in a military convoy between the Lebanese villages of Kawkaba and Hasbaya (about four miles north of the Israeli border) when the bomb went off, destroying the armored Mercedes in which he was riding. The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack. Among the dead were Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, the highest-ranking Israeli officer killed in Lebanon since 1982.
Cosette Elias Ibrahim, Al-Liwaa IMPRISONED
Israeli-occupation forces detained Ibrahim, a Lebanese journalism-school graduate and free-lance reporter who has worked for various newspapers, including the daily Al-Liwaa, in the town of Rumaish in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon. Ibrahim was in Rumaish to visit family; unconfirmed reports suggest that she was also planning to report on the living conditions of people in occupied south Lebanon.
Ibrahim was taken to the Khiam detention facility in Israel’s occupied zone. It is unclear whether she was seized by Israeli soldiers or by members of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. The motive for her detention is also unclear. Israeli authorities have accused Ibrahim of collaborating with Hezbollah guerrillas and providing the Lebanese army with information about Israeli military activities in the region.
Lebanese journalists and local human-rights organizations, however, believe that like many other residents of the occupied zone, Ibrahim was detained for refusing to collaborate with Israeli forces. Others maintain that Israeli authorities took offense at articles she wrote about the situation in south Lebanon.
CPJ protested Ibrahim’s illegal detention in a September 16 letter to Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. At year’s end Ibrahim remained incommunicado in Khiam, where she was being held without charges or other legal formalities.
Hussein Malla, Associated Press ATTACKED
Elie Yammine, Murr TV ATTACKED
Several journalists ATTACKED
A group of Lebanese and foreign photojournalists were violently assaulted by Lebanese soldiers and employees of a fertilizer factory in the northern town of Selaata. The journalists had been accompanying a group of Greenpeace activists who were attempting to stage a peaceful protest at the factory, which they accused of polluting Lebanese waters.
Several photographers, as well as activists, were struck with rifle butts and had their cameras confiscated or damaged. Among those severely beaten were Hussein Malla, a photographer for the Associated Press, and Elie Yammine, a cameraman for the local Murr TV.