On Refusing to Forget Samir Qassir

© The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon
July 28, 2005

As legal proceedings begin in France to shed light on the murder of Lebanese journalist and academic Samir Qassir on June 2, hundreds of his friends, students and journalists refuse to forget. Two weeks ago, a memorial ceremony was held for Qassir at the American University of Beirut, marking 40 days since his death. I attended on behalf of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The result was a public pledge to protect and promote the legacy of a charismatic and peaceful freedom fighter who didn’t hesitate to cross imposed “red lines.”

At the ceremony, the beautiful voice and music of Marcel Khalifeh had a soothing effect on mourners, still deeply saddened by the loss of a public figure whose influence, particularly among young people, was greater than that of many Arab civil society groups. Speakers and the taped messages sent by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Syrian opposition figure Riad Turk shattered the absurd thought that Qassir’s murder would halt the march of freedom and justice in Lebanon and the rest of the region.

Less than a week after Qassir’s death, a group of young Egyptians calling themselves Journalists for Change bluntly told President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies that the time had come to end the state of emergency, in force since his accession to power in 1981. The journalists took to the streets of Cairo, defying the police and calling for the release of political and other prisoners, for the protection of basic rights, and, most of all, for “the right to press freedom and peaceful assembly and association.”

Regrettably, the Qassir assassination seemes to have prompted self-censorship among Syrian writers and journalists. Beirut’s leading dailies reported a sharp drop in the number of opinion pieces submitted by Syrians since the murder. Indeed, in Beirut the journalist’s death was interpreted as an indirect warning to the Syrian opposition, with which Qassir had close ties.

The Samir Qassir Cultural Foundation, whose establishment was announced during the memorial ceremony, will hopefully not only highlight his legacy, but also promote independent journalism, campaign for the protection of press freedoms, and widen the circle of independent reporters. The determination of Qassir’s widow, Gisele Khoury, and friends, such as novelist Elias Khoury, to continue fighting for the principles that Qassir espoused has led to hope in a region where media are often tools of the security services. Qassir knew that Arab tyrants and their security aides fear and detest knowledge, to cite the great Arab writer Abdel-Rahman al-Kawakibi, “because of its effects.”

I met Qassir for the first time in May 2000 in his office at the old headquarters of the daily An-Nahar in the Hamra district of Beirut. I realized I was in the presence of an extremely intelligent man, likely, as Kawakibi put it, to frighten tyrants because of his ability to “enhance the spirit and broaden the intellect.” The meeting – followed by others during my assignment as Amnesty International’s Human Rights Education Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa – enormously helped the London-based rights group establish its regional office in Beirut in October 2000, and widen its circle of friends in Lebanon.

Qassir’s vast knowledge and his resistance to injustice and oppression in Lebanon and elsewhere were clearly a source of frustration and concern to those who finally decided to kill him. To their dismay, they realized that harassment and threats by the Lebanese security services, which reached their peak in 2001 when Qassir was tailed for weeks by agents, only seemed to harden his determination. He continued to defiantly campaign for the independence of Lebanon from Syria and its local allies.
Five years ago, I found it strange that many human rights activists in Beirut had never read Qassir’s articles or taken the time to benefit from his knowledge. He was an “engaged intellectual,” naturally inclined to side with freedom fighters and democracy advocates everywhere in the Middle East. He knew how to raise human rights awareness, pave the way for the end of the rule of fear and tyranny, and turn his words into deeds.

Many in the Arab world can learn much from Qassir’s legacy. Rights groups in particular would gain credibility if they joined forces with international rights groups now pressing for an independent investigation into the journalist’s murder and for the prosecution of those responsible.

Due to Qassir’s dual nationality – he was Lebanese and French – these groups should also target the Lebanese and the French authorities, as well as the UN Security Council, which is already handling the investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Identifying and trying these criminals will advance press freedom and deal a severe blow to all kingdoms and republics of fear and injustice in the Middle East.

Kamel Labidi is a Cairo-based freelance journalist and consultant for the New York- based Committee to Protect Journalists. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.