Attacks on the Press 2003: Lebanon

Lebanese media feature diverse opinions, aggressive question-and-answer television programs with government officials, and lively criticism of authorities and policies. In addition, the prevalence of satellite dishes gives Lebanese citizens access to other Arab and international TV stations.

Nonetheless, self-censorship remains a problem because authorities and editors are quick to clamp down on journalists who cross unstated boundaries on sensitive topics. The press avoids harsh criticism of the president, political and business corruption, and Lebanon’s relationship with Syria, which posts some 20,000 troops in Lebanon and plays a significant role in the country’s politics.

Libel is still a criminal offense punishable by prison, though no journalists have been jailed in the last several years. However, in March, a state prosecutor opened an investigation into columnist Akl Aweet, of the independent daily Al-Nahar, after he wrote a column titled, “Letter to God.” In the column, Aweet, a Christian, asked God to prove his existence by halting Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians and the U.S. war against Iraq. His article elicited an angry response from some Muslim religious leaders, who said the article was an offense to religion. The prosecutor also contended that the article was harmful to religion. Though Aweet was called in for questioning, the investigation was later dropped. Journalists say cases like Aweet’s increase self-censorship.

The government tolerates some criticism of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, as long as it appears in publications that do not reach a mass audience. Low-circulation papers, ones that are not published in Arabic, or those that have already been branded opposition papers can be more daring in their coverage than mainstream papers.

Many prominent politicians own shares in private broadcasters and publications, including Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who owns both the daily newspaper Al-Mustaqbal and Future Television. Because such media outlets often reflect politicians’ positions, journalists complain that they often cannot report freely.

Murr Television (MTV) and Radio Mount Lebanon (RML) remained off the air in 2003 following their September 2002 closure on charges that the stations, owned by Christian opposition politician Gabriel Murr, violated a prohibition against airing propaganda during elections. By April 2003, all legal efforts to overturn the closure had been exhausted. Murr, who was an opposition member of Parliament at the time his stations were shuttered, was stripped of his parliamentary seat in November 2002 by the Constitutional Council, Lebanon’s highest legal body. The council ruled that Murr had unfairly benefited from the “propaganda” of his channel during the elections. Some observers suspect the 2002 closure of MTV was partly due to its harsh criticism of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon.

In January, the Telecommunications Ministry cut the satellite link of the private television station New Television just before it was to air a program that criticized Saudi Arabia. According to press reports, the order came from Prime Minister Hariri, who has Saudi citizenship, made his personal fortune in Saudi Arabia, and maintains strong ties with the Saudi ruling elite. The station resumed broadcasting four days later, following the intervention of President Emile Lahoud.

In December, intelligence agents questioned New Television owner Tahsin Khayyat and accused him of harming Lebanon’s foreign relations and collaborating with Israel, according to news reports. He was released the next day without charge, but two weeks later, Information Minister Michel Samaha barred the station from broadcasting news for two days, saying it broke the law by airing “subjective” news. According to local sources, the action came after the station mentioned the names of two high-level Lebanese and Syrian security officials in a news report about a Sudanese colleague whose residency visa had been rejected.

Journalists who want to cover the southern Ein al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, which was the site of frequent fighting between Palestinian factions during 2003, do so at great risk. The Lebanese army and police do little to regulate the camp, where violent shoot-outs and killings occur often. In May, Agence France-Presse photographer Mahmoud Zayyat was struck in the foot by shrapnel from a bullet while he and several other journalists were covering a clash between two Palestinian groups.

According to press reports, in June, assailants fired two rockets from the trunk of a car at the building housing Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Television and Orient Radio. No one was injured in the attack, which damaged the building. A previously unknown Islamic group, which identified itself as Ansar Allah, initially took responsibility for the attack. A few days later, however, Interior Minister Elias Murr told the daily Al-Safir that Asbat al-Ansar, a Palestinian group based in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, was behind the attack. By year’s end, the motive for the attack was still unclear, and no one had been arrested.