Lebanon’s press corps is among the Arab world’s most spirited, with opinionated political debates and fiery TV talk shows. Yet while a wide array of newspapers and radio and TV stations often criticizes government policy in general, journalists avoid direct criticism of President Emile Lahoud and government and business corruption. The government monitors the media closely and controls the press through intimidation, censorship, and legal harassment.
Syria, which has about 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, plays a significant role in the country’s politics and exerts considerable pressure on the Lebanese media. Since Syrian troops arrived nearly 25 years ago at the request of the Lebanese government to restore order after civil war erupted, press criticism of Lebanon’s powerful neighbor has either been off-limits or severely constrained. However, the Lebanese government has become increasingly polarized over Syria’s presence and has permitted many in the media, like the independent daily newspaper Al-Nahar, to be more outspoken on the issue in recent years.
Under pressure from Syria, which wanted to keep the pro-Syria Lahoud in office, the Lebanese government amended the constitution in September to extend Lahoud’s term by three years. On September 2, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called for an end to all foreign interference in Lebanon. An October 1 car bombing in the capital, Beirut, that injured former parliamentary minister Marwan Hamadah, who opposed Lahoud’s term extension, was widely perceived as a warning to the opposition, including the media.
Government officials often call newspaper and TV editors to suggest stories and complain about content. Several journalists told CPJ of editorial censorship and articles cut for fear of displeasing authorities or security forces. Topics that triggered this kind of interference were criticism of Syria, corruption, and foreign fighters in Iraq who are allegedly crossing the Lebanese border.
Officials often threaten to prosecute journalists for libel and slander, but relatively few cases reach sentencing, and those that do usually end with suspended prison terms or fines. No Lebanese journalists are currently known to be in prison. In April, Ibrahim Awad, Beirut bureau chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, was convicted of “disturbing national security and harming the president’s dignity” with a December 2001 article about an assassination attempt on President Lahoud. He was given a one-year prison sentence and a fine, both of which were overturned on retrial in July. Awad said he did not write the article and was surprised to learn of his sentence since he and his lawyer had not been notified of the hearing. After the article was published, the president’s office issued a denial, which Al-Sharq al-Awsat promptly printed on its front page. The article in question did not have a byline, but authorities went after Awad because he was the paper’s Beirut bureau chief.
In May, then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri sued the privately owned satellite station New TV (NTV), accusing its news programs of “defamation, fabrications, and sectarianism,” though Hariri’s lawyer provided no specific examples. NTV aired programs in 2004 about alleged municipal corruption in Beirut, as well as an erroneous report that accused Prime Minister Hariri’s son of conducting illegal transactions in Saudi Arabia, for which NTV issued an apology the next day. The lawsuit, which was pending at year’s end, was only the latest legal action against NTV, which has criticized the prime minister in the past.
On July 28, Ali Hashisho, a journalist for Reuters news agency and NTV in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, walked out of his house and found three grenades on the windshield of his parked car, one hidden behind a rear tire, and a note warning him that the car was booby-trapped and that he should stop reporting for NTV. The grenades did not detonate, and no one was injured. Authorities have not determined who made the threat.
Lebanon has several private “independent” stations, most of which are controlled by, or closely aligned with, leading politicians. In recent years, the government has closed some of them, censored parts of live broadcasts, and questioned journalists about programming that criticized Saudi Arabia or Syrian or Lebanese officials.
The fact that politicians own many news outlets in Lebanon has resulted in highly politicized coverage. Former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri owns the daily newspaper Al-Mustaqbal and the news and entertainment channel Future Television. Speaker of the House Nabih Berri owns a TV station, and other politicians or political groups have stakes in other media, such as Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV. Journalists say they practice self-censorship daily for self-preservation. However, Lebanon’s French- and English-language newspapers, which have small readerships, are not considered a threat to the government and can stretch these limits.
Journalists say the government’s 2002 closures of Murr Television (MTV) and Radio Mount Lebanon, owned by Christian opposition politician Gabriel Murr, still have a chilling effect on media today. The two outlets were accused of violating a law that prohibits airing propaganda during elections, which were held in June 2002. But journalists suspect that the closures were partly triggered by MTV’s criticism of the government and Syria.