Attacks on the Press 2002: Lebanon

Although Lebanon’s private media are known for their intense debates over local politics and criticism of government officials, Lebanese authorities do not hesitate to use censorship, legal harassment, and intimidation against journalists or media outlets that the government believes go too far.

In September, Lebanese security forces closed the offices of Murr Television (MTV) and Radio Mount Lebanon, owned by Christian opposition Parliament member Gabriel Murr. Armed security forces roughed up staff and ordered them to leave the offices. The Puýlications Court accused the stations of violating a law that prohibits airing propaganda during elections, which were held in June. Some observers suspect that the closure was partly triggered by MTV’s criticism of the Lebanese government and of Syria–which posts some 20,000 troops in Lebanon and plays a significant role in the country’s politics. Right before the June poll, prosecutors had accused the station of harming Lebanon’s ties with Syria through its coverage. During the elections, station staff claimed that they were prohibited from covering the poll because they work for MTV. Both outlets remained closed at year’s end.

MTV was not the only television station subjected to state harassment. Prosecutors began investigating the other main Christian-owned station, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), after it ran a report in late August about a Muslim government employee who had killed eight people at the Ministry of Education building. Officials objected to LBCI’s news anchor pointing out that the majority of the victims shared the same religion. Witnesses interviewed in the report accused the suspected murderer, who is Muslim, of targeting Christians. Because the Lebanese government fears sectarian violence, officials are extremely sensitive to any coverage of religious differences in the country. Lebanon’s information minister, Ghazi Aridi, has warned journalists repeatedly against provoking sectarian strife. Officials are still investigating LBCI, but the station had not been officially charged at year’s end.

The state also went after print media in 2002. In January, authorities imposed prior censorship on the influential London-based daily Al Sharq al-Awsat after it
carried a front-page report in late December 2001 detailing an alleged assassination attempt on Lebanese president Emile Lahoud. The restriction was lifted a few
days later. In April, a court dismissed the cases against Al Sharq al-Awsat‘s editor-in-chief and Beirut bureau chief, both of whom had been prosecuted in connection
with the article.

The English-language Daily Star faced the threat of prosecution when the International Herald Tribune, which is distributed with the Daily Star, ran an advertisement from the New York-based Anti-Defamation League in early April expressing support for Israel. Lebanon and Israel technically remain at war, and showing public support for Israel can be illegal in Lebanon. The distribution agreement between the Tribune and the Daily Star does not give the Daily Star any editorial control over Tribune content, but Daily Star publisher, Jamil Mroue, could have been prosecuted as the Tribune‘s Beirut representative. Ultimately, Mroue, who faced jail time, was not charged, and the Daily Star chose not to distribute the Tribune on a later occasion when it carried the same advertisement.

Even though newspaper editorials regularly criticize government policies and many television channels feature lively call-in shows, the press continues to censor itself, avoiding tough criticism of the president, the army, and security forces, as well as stories that authorities believe might inflame sectarian tensions. Criticism of Syria and its controversial role in Lebanese politics remains highly constrained.

August 6

Jean Feghali, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International
Pierre Daher, Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International

A state prosecutor ordered an investigation into charges that Feghali, news editor at the private television station Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), and Daher, LBCI chairman, are responsible for “inciting sectarian strife” and “disturbing general peace.” The men face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 100 million Lebanese pounds (US$66,100).

The accusations stemmed from a July 31 report the station broadcast about eight government employees who had been murdered by a disgruntled colleague in the Ministry of Education building. The government objected to the fact that LBCI’s news anchor pointed out that the majority of the victims shared the same religion. Witnesses interviewed in the report accused the killer, who is Muslim, of targeting Christians.

The Lebanese government is extremely sensitive to any coverage of sectarian differences in the country, and Lebanese information minister Ghazi Aridi has warned journalists repeatedly against provoking sectarian strife.

September 5

Murr Television
Mount Lebanon Radio

The private Lebanese television station Murr TV (MTV) and Mount Lebanon Radio were raided by Lebanese Internal Security Forces who forcibly closed the stations and roughed up employees. According to sources familiar with the case, the closures were based on a Beirut court ruling that MTV had violated a law prohibiting news stations from broadcasting propaganda during elections.

The television and radio stations are owned by Gabriel Murr, a Christian opposition Parliament member who opposes Syria’s political influence in Lebanon. Although the Lebanese press often avoids criticizing Syria, both stations have criticized the Syrian and Lebanese governments.

The court decision was not based on a particular political advertisement but on promotional spots aired on the station during the June elections urging citizens to register to vote, said a source at the station. The advertisements did not mention Murr by name. State prosecutors originally brought the case against MTV in August on charges that included harming relations with Syria and violating election laws.