Lebanon boasts numerous privately owned newspapers and magazines, as well as television and radio stations that feature lively criticism of officials and government policies. Throughout 2001, however, Lebanese authorities used both the legal system and informal bullying to rein in outspoken journalists.
During 2001, Lebanese security forces harassed several journalists in retaliation for their professional work. In one widely publicized case, in June, a military court prosecuted Raghida Dergham, the New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, for “dealing with the enemy” because of her participation in a 2000 panel discussion in Washington, D.C., that also featured an Israeli official.
The real motivation for the action was thought to be official anger at Dergham’s critical coverage of a Lebanese dispute with the United Nations over the demarcation of the Lebanese-Israeli border. In 2000, authorities cancelled Dergham’s passport while she was visiting Beirut. On November 30, 2001, the court dismissed the charges. In late March, security agents confiscated the Lebanese passport of Samir Qassir, a journalist with the daily Al-Nahar. That action appeared to come in response to Qassir’s March 16 editorial criticizing the Lebanese army and security services. The passport was eventually returned, but authorities said they were investigating the legality of his Lebanese citizenship. The issue had not been resolved at press time.
Lebanese journalists tend to avoid criticizing the president, the army and state security services, official corruption, or Syria’s controversial military and political role in the country. But in August, the armed forces filed criminal charges in a military court against the Paris-based weekly Al-Watan Al-Arabi. The magazine had published an article alleging that Syrian soldiers, some 20,000 of whom are stationed in Lebanon, were disguising themselves in Lebanese army uniforms. The case was still pending at years’ end.
One week later, amid a government crackdown on opposition Christian groups, the army sued an editor and writer for Al-Nahar for defamation after the paper ran an article criticizing the country’s compulsory military service.
Leaders of Lebanon’s various political and religious factions tend to see media outlets as little more than political tools. Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, for example, owns the station Future TV, which strongly backed Hariri during the 2000 elections. Politicians and others have also been known to pay journalists in exchange for positive press coverage, according to local sources.
One positive development has been the top-notch weekly cultural supplement of Al-Nahar, edited by novelist Elias Khoury. The paper continued to tackle topics often avoided by other newspapers, such as human rights, press freedom, and the Syrian military presence.
Broadcasters are also subject to restrictive laws, such as Decree 7997 of 1996, which bans stations broadcast news that 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. State security agents continued to screen foreign publications entering the country and occasionally censored publications containing objectionable material.
As in other Middle East countries, many in Lebanon are able to bypass the local media entirely if they so chose. Many Lebanese have satellite dishes and can tune in to a wide variety of regional and international news programming.
Samir Qassir, Al-Nahar
Lebanese security authorities confiscated the passport of Qassir, a journalist with the daily Al-Nahar, at the Beirut airport when he arrived from Amman, Jordan, where he had been covering the Arab Summit.
Authorities told Qassir, a Lebanese citizen born of naturalized Lebanese parents, that they wanted to verify the passport’s validity. Although Qassir’s passport was returned on April 11, authorities warned that his case was still under investigation.
According to Qassir, the security officials who confiscated his passport mentioned an editorial he had written on March 16 that criticized the Lebanese armed forces and security services.
In an April 12 letter to Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, CPJ expressed its deep concern about the incident.
Raghida Dergham, Al-Hayat
A Lebanese military court launched the criminal trial in absentia of Dergham, a New York-based Lebanese reporter who was charged with “dealing with the enemy” because she participated in a panel discussion with an Israeli official.
Dergham is the New York bureau chief for the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat. The charges, filed earlier in the year, stemmed from her participation in a May 19, 2000, panel discussion sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C. The panel included Uri Lubrani, formerly the Israeli government’s coordinator of activities in southern Lebanon. The discussion focused on Middle Eastern politics, with special reference to Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. It was believed that the charges, along with previous harassment, was a response to her critical coverage of Lebanon’s dispute with the U.N. over the demarcation of border area between Lebanon and Israel in 2000.
On June 19, 2000, one month after the Washington panel, Lebanese authorities seized Dergham’s Lebanese passport when she arrived at Beirut Airport with United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, who was touring several Middle Eastern countries. When the passport was returned it had been canceled. The cancellation stamp stated specifically that the passport could not be renewed without the approval of the General Directorate for Internal Security.
Security officials gave no reason for their actions at the time but later announced that Derghan had violated a Lebanese law prohibiting contacts between Lebanese citizens and Israelis.
The military indictment accused Dergham of being a “participant as a journalist in a debate that was arranged by the enemy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.” It added that her actions “constituted a crime based on Article 278 of the Penal Code.”
After opening the trial on June 1, 2001, the military court adjourned until November 30 to give Dergham an opportunity to appear before the court. On November 30, the court dismissed the charges altogether.
Brent Sadler, CNN
Christian Streib, CNN
Nada Husseini, CNN
CNN Beirut bureau chief Sadler, cameraman Streib, producer Husseini, and their driver were fired on by cannabis growers while filming a story about the narcotics industry in the Bekaa Valley.
The crew was filming about 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Hermel when several warning shots were fired in their direction as they left the area. “Several minutes later we were ambushed on a remote mountain road by about 10 gunmen in two cars, armed with assault rifles, pistols, and…a sniper rifle,” Sadler told Agence France-Presse. “They pointed the gun at the driver and fired one shot. No one was shot.”
The assailants then forced the CNN crew out of their car and fired several random shots. They took the crew’s money, passports, cameras, and other equipment before leaving the scene.
Hussein al-Moulla, The Associated Press
Sami Ayad, Al-Nahar
Yehia Houjairi, Kuwait TV
Al-Moulla and Ayad, photographers for The Associated Press and the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, respectively, were beaten by men thought to be plainclothes agents while covering clashes between Lebanese security forces and anti-Syrian Christian groups.
Before al-Moulla was struck, a man in civilian clothes warned him not to take any photos. Al-Moulla agreed but later filmed and was struck in the back. It was unclear who attacked, but the journalist suspected the man who warned him. Unidentified assailants struck Ayad after he refused to turn over his film.
According to journalists at the scene, security agents briefly detained Kuwaiti state television cameraman Houjairi, who was also filming the clashes.