Attacks on the Press 2005: Lebanon


n the popular uproar that followed the assassination of former
Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, Lebanon’s press, already among the most vibrant in the Arab world, hoped for greater freedom. But a series of bomb attacks on journalists who dared criticize Syria and its Lebanese allies quickly demonstrated that the old order had not been overthrown.

Thousands of Lebanese packed Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to protest the murder, in what the press dubbed the “Cedar Revolution.” Syria, which was also under intense international pressure, eventually withdrew its 14,000 troops from Lebanon at the end of April. During its 25-year-long rule, Damascus and its Lebanese allies had placed severe restrictions on the Lebanese media, forbidding criticism of the Syrian presence.

Some journalists believed that criticism of Syrian officials and politicians linked to Damascus, such as Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, would be possible. “The gloves are now off,” said one journalist. He and his colleagues soon learned, however, that it was the enemies of press freedom who were geared up for a fight.

On June 2, prominent columnist Samir Qassir of Al-Nahar newspaper was killed outside his home in East Beirut by a bomb placed in his car. Qassir, 45, a leading figure in the Democratic Left movement, wrote extensively about the need for Lebanese independence. He challenged the security order in Lebanon and highlighted the inability of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to bring about real political reform. Journalists were outraged by Qassir’s murder, and saw it as a warning that critical coverage of Syria was still off-limits. Syrian troops and security services may have withdrawn, but many journalists believe a shadowy network working for Damascus and its allies remained, and that it continues to pose a threat to journalists and press freedom. Editors said Qassir’s death produced widespread fear and self-censorship. For some time, Syrian journalists who had traditionally published in Lebanese newspapers were especially wary and submitted fewer articles than before.

For several weeks after the killing, some journalists thought the threat to their safety had diminished, and editors said the murder may even have spurred some writers to become outspoken. But on September 25, an attempt on the life of May Chidiac, a political talk-show host with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, reignited journalists’ fears. Chidiac, a strong critic of Syria, lost an arm and a leg when a bomb exploded under the driver’s seat of her car near the port city of Jounieh. Just 10 days earlier, Ali Ramez Tohme, who had published a book on al-Hariri, escaped a similar attack. He was not in his car when it blew up.

Qassir’s friend Elias Khoury, the cultural editor of Al-Nahar, has started the Samir Qassir Cultural Foundation, which aims to defend press freedom in the region. CPJ and human rights lawyers in Lebanon are pushing to have the United Nations Security Council assign Qassir’s case to UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis, who is in charge of the al-Hariri murder investigation. Qassir’s family, including his wife, prominent Al-Arabiya journalist Gisele Khoury, have brought his case before a French court, and a French judicial investigation is under way. Qassir had French and Lebanese citizenship.

The year ended with another assassination. Gebran Tueni, Al-Nahar‘s managing director and columnist, was killed by a bomb that targeted his armored vehicle in east Beirut. Tueni was a member of parliament and harsh critic of Syrian policies. He was killed on December 12—the day he returned home from Paris, where he had spent considerable time because of fears for his safety.

Self-censorship remained a problem because of a lack of faith in the independence of the Lebanese judiciary, editors say. The country’s press law restricts criticism that incites “sectarian grudges” and forbids “attacking foreign kings and heads of state.” On July 21, two Lebanese journalists—Zahi Wehbe and Al-Mustaqbal director Tawfiq Khattab—were indicted on charges of libeling Lahoud. Libel is still a criminal offense punishable by prison, although no journalists have been jailed in several years.

The indictment was apparently brought against the journalists for an article that appeared on June 7 in Al-Mustaqbal, which is owned by Hariri, just five days after Qassir’s death. In the article, titled “His Excellency, the Murderer,” Wehbe wrote, “The general has not, and will not, understand that the people cannot be terrorized… Your Excellency the murderer. Enough. Go.” Lahoud is often referred to as “the general” in the press. The Al-Mustaqbal article did not mention Lahoud by name. In an Associated Press article, Wehbe said the piece was aimed at “all killers in Lebanon.” If convicted, Wehbe could face up to two years in prison. Khattab could face up to three years.

Meanwhile, Murr Television is reportedly set to reopen early in 2006. The station, owned by Christian opposition politician Gabriel Murr, was closed in September 2002 for violating a ban on airing propaganda during elections. Some observers suspect the closure was due in part to its criticism of Syria.