LEBANESE JOURNALISTS HAVE BEEN NOTED FOR THEIR FREEWHEELING STYLE, but the freedom and independence that characterized Lebanon’s media before the 15-year civil war have yet to return, for reasons that include censorship, self-censorship, archaic media laws, and occasional state intimidation.
Nevertheless, an important taboo was breached in March, before Israel’s anticipated withdrawal from south Lebanon, when Gebran Tueni, publisher of the mass-circulation daily Al-Nahar, called for the redeployment and withdrawal of Syrian troops in Lebananon under the 1990 Taif Accords. For years, criticism of Syria’s controversial military presence in Lebanon, or any truly critical reporting about Syria, had been a red line that few editors dared cross. Although Tueni’s open letter to Bashar Assad-at the time the heir apparent to his father Hafez al-Assad and in charge of Lebanon policy-triggered a public outcry from certain newspapers and Lebanese officials, other writers followed his lead.
In the larger media picture, Lebanese journalists continued to write cautiously, if at all, on topics such as the activities of security forces, corruption, and sectarian tensions. And despite the new willingness to comment on Syria’s military presence, coverage of Syrian affairs was generally restrained.
The media remained highly politicized and beholden to various political interests. Billionaire prime minister Rafiq Hariri owns the influential Al-Mustaqbal television station and a daily newspaper of the same name. The family of Interior Minister Michel al-Murr owns Murr TV, and other newspapers are said to have their own allegiances. “The [media] still has a feudal mentality,” remarked one journalist in September. “There are no real independents.”
In early February, Al-Mustaqbal newspaper columnist Yousef Bazzi was briefly detained after criticizing Defense Minister Ghazi Zaiter for being out of the country during a period of unrest in northern Lebanon. Overall, however, few journalists have been arrested or prosecuted since President Emile Lahoud took office in 1998, promising to promote press freedom.
Following Hariri’s return to the prime ministership after parliamentary elections in August and September, there was concern among some journalists that Hariri would revert to his old, intolerant ways. During Hariri’s previous tenure, government officials proved adroit at harassing journalists with criminal libel suits filed in response to unwelcome criticisms.
State security agents continued to screen foreign publications entering the country. There was a spate of seizures of international newspapers in June following the death of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, apparently because they contained critical retrospectives about the late Syrian leader.
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 results in “slander, disparagement, disgrace, [or] defamation.” The Audiovisual Law of 1994 empowers the Ministry of Information to close television and radio stations that break the rules. Meanwhile, international satellite news broadcasts were still subject to prior censorship.
For the second year in a row, there were highly publicized cases of journalists assaulted by security forces. In March, police attacked several reporters and photographers who were covering a demonstration in front of the Beirut residence of then-prime minister Salim al-Hoss. The demonstrators were protesting the extradition to Japan of four members of the radical Japanese Red Army. After the incident, some 50 photographers staged a sit-in outside Parliament that included a one-day boycott on photographing legislators and government officials.
In June, Lebanese authorities cancelled the passport of Lebanese journalist Raghida Dergham, New York bureau chief for the London daily Al-Hayat, when she arrived at Beirut airport with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, whom she was accompanying on his tour of several Middle East countries. The General Directorate for Internal Security said later that Dergham had violated Lebanese law by taking part in a Washington, D.C. discussion panel that included an Israeli official. However, some saw the move as a response to Dergham’s critical coverage of a Lebanese government dispute with the U.N. over the demarcation of the Lebanese-Israeli border following Israel’s withdrawal in May. Dergham’s passport was restored the next month, apparently after Annan’s intervention.
Yousef Bazzi, Al-Mustaqbal
Bazzi, a columnist for the daily Al-Mustaqbal, was summoned for questioning and later arrested following a complaint by Defense Minister Ghazi Zaiter.
Zaiter had accused Bazzi of libeling him in a column that accused the minister of irresponsibility for failing to return to Lebanon from Paris during clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants in northern Lebanon.
Police questioned Bazzi extensively about his article, but claimed that he had been arrested because he was not a member of the national press association and was therefore practicing journalism unlawfully.
Bazzi was released after three hours, following the intervention of the press association and the office of President Emile Lahoud. The case against him was still under investigation at year’s end.
Ramzi Haidar, Agence France-Presse
Hussein Malla, The Associated Press
Nada Abdel Samad, Al-Quds al-Arabi, BBC
Lebanese police attacked journalists covering a demonstration in front of Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss’ home in Beirut. The protesters were angered by the government’s decision to extradite four members of the radical Japanese Red Army group to Japan.
The journalists were attacked, along with the demonstrators, after police warned everyone to disperse.
Abdel Samad, a reporter for the London daily Al-Quds al-Arabi and the BBC, said she was pushed repeatedly and hit in the back of the head with what she thought was a rifle butt.
Haidar, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, said that police attacked him and confiscated the film from his camera. Associated Press photographer Malla also had his film confiscated, as did an unidentified photographer from the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal.
Jeremy Bowen, BBC
Malek Kenaan, BBC
An Israeli tank fired on the car used by BBC journalists Bowen and Kenaan, killing their driver Abed Takkoush.
Takkoush, who had worked as a BBC driver for 25 years, died when the Israeli tank shell hit his parked Mercedes on the road between the villages of Mays al-Jebel and Houla, near the Israeli border settlement of Manara, just before noon on May 23.
Takkoush had just driven BBC reporter Bowen and cameraman Kenaan to the area. While Takkoush waited inside the car, the two journalists started filming a burned-out vehicle that had been destroyed by tank fire, with the Israeli Manara settlement in the background. Their camera was set up about 100 yards from Takkoush’s car.
An Israeli army observation post was clearly visible on the border, some 500 yards away. Bowen, dressed in a pink shirt, waved his hands in an attempt to demonstrate that he, Kenaan, and Takkoush were unarmed civilians. A few moments later, the journalists heard a loud crash and saw Takkoush’s parked car burst into flames.
Bowen and Kenaan took cover for several minutes and then approached the car in an effort to assist Takkoush. The Israeli soldiers aimed a burst of machine-gun fire in their direction, forcing them to take cover again. The threat of Israeli gunfire also stymied several later rescue attempts, and Takkoush’s body was only recovered hours later by local rescue workers.
In a statement released on June 16, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) described the attack as a “tragic mistake.” According to the statement, the incident occurred after an Israeli tank crew “observed a suspicious vehicle carrying individuals in civilian clothing, and suspected that they were members of a terrorist Lebanese group carrying equipment and preparing for an anti-tank missile firing against IDF tanks and vehicles.” An IDF investigation concluded that “under the operational circumstances in which the tank crew operated, and in light of the data that was known at the time, the crew operated in accordance with the relevant procedures for such situations,” the statement added.
But the IDF’s findings contradicted or failed to explain eyewitness accounts of the event. Eyewitnesses interviewed by CPJ and Amnesty International noted that at the time of the incident there was no evidence that Israeli forces faced any military threat in the area. There was “no report of any firing or other military hostile action directed at the Israeli border on either [May 22 or May 23] in these areas at the time of the attacks,” according to the Amnesty report “Israel/Lebanon: Attacks on Lebanese Civilians in South Lebanon by Israeli Forces.” The report adds that “no fire was directed at Israel from within Lebanon throughout the period of the IDF withdrawal.”
In its response to the IDF’s June 16 statement, the BBC noted that the statement “does not address the overwhelming evidence that on the road next to Kibbutz Manara the IDF was recklessly targeting civilians.” The BBC also pointed out that if Israeli forces felt under threat at the time of the shell attack, it seemed odd that the IDF did not force Israeli civilians observing events on the border to seek shelter. Finally, the BBC asked why Israeli forces had targeted a parked car and not the BBC journalists themselves, if they in fact believed that Bowen and Kenaan were hostile terrorists.
“Even if the tank unit was in some doubt about the identity of the occupants, the response was disproportionate and reckless,” the BBC said in a statement issued shortly after the attack.
CPJ condemned the attack in a June 19 letter to Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
International Herald Tribune
Lebanese authorities confiscated the June 13 edition of the Paris dailies Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune (IHT). One day earlier, the French daily Libération was similarly confiscated.
It was widely suspected that the bans were imposed because the three newspapers had published articles critical of Syria and its late president, Hafez al-Assad, who died on June 10.
Le Monde, for example, had carried several critical articles about al-Assad, including an editorial headlined “Should We Cry for Hafez Assad?” The IHT and Libération also published unfavorable accounts of the Syrian leader’s career, while the IHT ran an article about al-Assad’s estranged brother Rifaat’s attempts to succeed him as president.
Raghida Dergham, Al-Hayat
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Authorities confiscated and canceled the Lebanese passport of Dergham, the New York bureau chief for the London daily Al-Hayat and a widely respected commentator on Arab affairs, when she arrived at Beirut airport with United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. Dergham was accompanying Annan on a tour of several Middle East countries.
No reason was given for the action. Dergham only learned that the passport had been canceled on June 23, when she arrived in Damascus and was informed by Syrian immigration officers that it was no longer valid. Dergham, who is also a U.S. citizen, was forced to use her American passport instead.
A statement from Lebanon’s General Directorate for Internal Security, published in Al-Hayat on July 4, said that Dergham’s passport had been voided because of her participation in a May 19 panel discussion in Washington, D.C. that also included Israeli government official Uri Lubrani and British journalist Patrick Seale According to the statement, this meeting violated a Lebanese law that prohibits contacts between Lebanese citizens and Israelis.
According to CPJ sources, however, the action could also have been taken in response to Dergham’s coverage of a Lebanese government dispute with the UN over the demarcation of the Lebanese-Israeli border following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May.
CPJ protested the cancellation of Dergham’s passport in a July 7 letter to President Emile Lahoud, who reversed the order on July 17.