July 7, 2000
His Excellency Emile Lahoud
President of the Republic of Lebanon
c/o His Excellency Dr. Farid Abboud
Embassy of Lebanon
2560 28th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to strongly protest the Lebanese authorities’ recent decision to annul the passport of Raghida Dergham, the New York bureau chief for the London-based daily Al-Hayat and a widely respected commentator on Arab affairs.
On June 19, Lebanese authorities seized Dergham’s Lebanese passport upon her arrival at Beirut airport where she had been accompanying United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on his tour of several Middle East countries. When her passport was returned the next day prior to her departure, it contained a stamp annulling the travel document and stating that it could not be renewed without the approval of the General Directorate for Internal Security. No reason was given for the action, and Dergham reportedly only learned that the passport had been canceled when she arrived on June 23 in Damascus and was informed by Syrian customs that the document was no longer valid. Dergham, who is also a U.S. citizen, was forced to use her American passport. Al-Hayat has reported that Lebanese authorities have issued a general alert to its consulates worldwide, instructing them to abide by the ban on issuing her a new passport.
In a statement published in Al-Hayat on July 4, the General Directorate for Internal Security stated that Dergham’s passport was voided because of her participation in a panel discussion sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on May 19 in Washington, D.C. Among the panelists were the British journalist Patrick Seale, as well as Uri Lubrani, Israel’s Coordinator of Activities in Southern Lebanon. The discussion focused on the political situation in the Middle East, specifically in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In its statement, Internal Security said because Dergham had participated in the panel with Lubrani, she had violated Lebanese law which prohibits contacts between Lebanese citizens and Israelis.
According to CPJ’s sources, however, the action against Dergham also may stem from her critical coverage of the Lebanese government’s dispute with the UN over the demarcation of the Lebanese-Israeli border following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May.
We are shocked that Lebanese authorities would punish Raghida Dergham in response to her thoroughly professional work as a journalist and commentator. Depriving journalists of their passports for exercising professional responsibilities represents an unconscionable violation of the most fundamental norms of freedom of expression.
Regrettably, the restrictions imposed on Raghida Dergham coincide with a disturbing pattern of Lebanese government censorship of foreign newspapers. In recent weeks, Lebanese censors have barred distribution of the French newspapers Le Monde, Liberation, and L’Express, as well as the U.S. paper The International Herald Tribune. These measures apparently are in response to these journals’ critical commentary on the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, who died in early June.
Government censorship and the harassment and intimidation of journalists like Raghida Dergham contradict Lebanon’s professed commitments to freedom of the press. Shortly after Your Excellency took office in late 1998, you were quoted saying, “a free press is the basis of democracy and rulers cannot rule justly without a press that puts them in touch with the true conditions of the population and the country, and allows them to learn of people’s sufferings.” You added that a free press was “the only way for leaders to learn about the true conditions of the country and the people.”
It is in this spirit that CPJ, a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, respectfully urges Your Excellency to ensure that Raghida Dergham’s passport be reinstated immediately and that the Lebanese authorities immediately cease the censorship of newspapers, in accordance with international press freedom standards.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.
Ann K. Cooper