Lebanese journalists face charges of defaming president

New York, March 2, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by criminal charges filed against the daily Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, its editor-in-chief, and a staff reporter for defaming President Emile Lahoud.

The charges were brought by Beirut prosecutor Joseph Me’mari on Tuesday, four days after Al-Mustaqbal published an interview with former Lebanese ambassador to France and former army intelligence chief Johnny Abdo, who criticized Lahoud’s performance. According to The Daily Star, Abdo was quoted as saying that “under Lahoud’s mandate, the Presidential Palace was turned into an unsuitable place to hold dialogue, and Lahoud’s presence violates the constitution, because the constitution says the president is the symbol of unity.”

Tawfiq Khattab, the editor-in-chief, and Fares Khashan, the article’s author, were charged with insulting and defaming the president under Articles 23 and 26 of the Lebanese publication law and Article 219 of the penal code, according to Al-Mustaqbal. The journalists face up to two years in prison if convicted. Abdo, who lives in France, has been charged under the same statutes. Khashan is also based in France.

“It’s outrageous that journalists face prison for publishing the comments of a former diplomat about matters of vital public interest,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “This type of punitive case, coupled with the unsolved murders of journalists, endangers Lebanon’s vibrant press.”

Al-Mustaqbal is owned by the family of Rafiq al-Hariri, the slain former prime minister. The paper and its journalists are now facing a total of 12 charges related to defaming the president and other members of parliament, a journalist at the paper told CPJ. One of the most prominent cases involves Khattab and another staff reporter, Zahi Wehbe, who were indicted in July 2005 on charges of libeling Lahoud. That case is pending.

The indictment stemmed from an article that appeared in Al-Mustaqbal on June 7, five days after Lebanese columnist Samir Qassir was murdered in a car bombing. In the article, headlined “His Excellency, the Murderer,” Wehbe wrote: “The general has not, and will not, understand that the people cannot be terrorized.” Although Al-Mustaqbal did not mention Lahoud by name, he is often referred to as “the general” in the press. Wehbe told The Associated Press that the piece was aimed at “all killers in Lebanon.”

Lebanese columnist Gebran Tueni was killed by a bomb in December, and television journalist May Chidiac was gravely wounded in a September bomb attack.