This deeply divided country reached the brink of full-scale conflict in mid-year after political and religious leaders used the news media to inflame sectarian divisions and failed to abide by the consensual style of government agreed upon at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. A battle of words that began in December 2006 with the resignation of Shiite Hezbollah ministers and allies from the coalition government headed by Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora erupted in deadly street clashes in May.
In Sunni-dominated West Beirut, armed assailants attacked news outlets belonging to the Future Media Group, owned by Saad al-Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority and son of the slain Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. U.N. investigators continued to investigate the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and its possible connection to 22 other slayings, including those of prominent Al-Nahar journalists Samir Qassir and Gebran Tueni. In April, Reuters quoted Daniel Bellemare, head of the U.N. investigation, as saying he had collected “evidence that a previously existing network of individuals carried out al-Hariri’s 2005 assassination and was linked to other political murders in Lebanon.”
Relatives and friends of the slain journalists, who were known for criticizing the regime in neighboring Syria, told CPJ they were hopeful that U.N. investigators would identify the killers and bring them before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Created in 2006, the tribunal is charged under a U.N. Security Council resolution with prosecuting those responsible for the al-Hariri assassination and related attacks under Lebanese criminal laws.
The outburst of violence in May–which left more than 60 people dead, according to news reports–was triggered by the Western-backed government’s decision to shut down a secret telecommunications network operated by Hezbollah, whose close ties with Iran and Syria have spurred concern in Lebanon and among allies of the Lebanese government. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah called the government’s action–along with its dismissal of Beirut International Airport security chief Wafiq Shuqair, who was accused of being a Hezbollah sympathizer–a “declaration of war.”
On May 7, as government supporters clashed with activists during a labor union strike backed by Hezbollah and its allies, three photojournalists were roughed up and the equipment of two others was damaged, according to news accounts and Lebanon’s Syndicate of Photographers.
Two days later, Future TV’s local and satellite broadcasts, along with broadcasts from its Radio Orient station, were shut down after Hezbollah gunmen and allied armed groups threatened staff at a Future office in Beirut’s Sanayeh neighborhood, a senior staff member told CPJ. Gunmen later stormed the building, tampered with equipment, and destroyed the television archives section, according to news reports. Armed activists from the antigovernment Lebanese Syrian Nationalist Party set fire to a Future TV building in West Beirut’s Raouche area the same day, according to international news reports. The Associated Press reported that Hezbollah gunmen set fire to the offices of the daily Al-Mustaqbal, also part of the Future Media Group, in Beirut’s Ramlet Al-Bayda neighborhood.
More than 300 journalists working for media outlets of different political leanings took to the streets May 10 to protest Hezbollah’s acts against the Future Media Group, AP reported. Many told CPJ that pervasive political influence over news media was a major problem that had resulted in the spread of suspicion and misunderstanding in Lebanon’s fractured society. The Future Media Group resumed programming May 13 and Al-Mustaqbal resumed publication the day after.
The violent clashes, which lasted nearly a week, subsided after the government put on hold its decisions to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and to fire the airport security chief. The government instead handed the issues to the army to resolve. The army reinstated Shuqair and said vaguely that it would address the telecommunications issue in a way that would not harm public interests or Hezbollah’s security.
On May 21, after negotiations under the auspices of Qatar and the League of Arab States, the major political parties reached a settlement in which they agreed to forgo future violence and go forward with parliament’s selection of a president. Parliament soon elected army Gen. Michel Suleiman, who was seen as a consensus choice. On the eve of the May clashes, at a time when political and religious leaders were stoking emotions, it was the Lebanese Armed Forces that had urged news media to show restraint.
One article in the May settlement called for restraining the media–“as if the politicians and political parties were the editors,” said Walid el Houri, opinion editor at Menassat. Yet he noted that many members of the Lebanese media welcomed the article. Calling on political players to impose restraint on the media would typically be considered an egregious intrusion, journalists said, but in the case of Lebanon, it was more a reflection of reality. Lebanese media outlets, particularly radio and television, have been used as mouthpieces for major factions since the country’s independence from France and its adoption of the 1943 power-sharing National Pact. Political leaders have often pledged to refrain from using media to inflame sectarian strife, only to backslide on those promises.
Maharat, a local group promoting press freedom and democracy, said in a September study that some politically influenced media had turned their backs on basic journalism rules and ethics before and during the clashes. “Media outlets have never been so politicized and intolerant of different views since the end of civil war 18 years ago. There is urgent need for the emergence of independent news outlets,” Roula Mekhaiel, executive director of Maharat, told CPJ.
Despite the May agreement, sporadic harassment and violence were reported throughout the rest of the year. Tariq Saleh, a Brazilian producer, along with reporter Marcos Losekann and cameraman Paulo Pimentel of Brazil’s TV Globo, were arrested August 15 by Hezbollah militants in Dahiye, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, while doing a story on a local restaurant owner, Saleh told CPJ. Saleh said the crew went through three different interrogations that lasted for more than three hours. “They didn’t attack us physically, but we were under constant psychological pressure,” Saleh told CPJ.
Al-Mustaqbal reporter Omar Harkous was hospitalized for several days after being badly beaten while covering a November demonstration by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a pro-Syrian Lebanese group, according to news reports. Prosecutor Joseph Maamari filed assault charges against three members of the party.
Television and radio were subjected to restrictive laws such as Decree 7997 of 1996, which banned stations from broadcasting news that, in the judgment of authorities, seeks to “inflame or incite sectarian or religious chauvinism.” Yet these same authorities were often deeply involved in setting the tone of news coverage at politically affiliated media outlets. The Audiovisual Law of 1994 is also tailored for major political and religious patrons. Over the past decade, the government has used the law to shut down critical TV channels while licensing outlets affiliated with major political and religious factions.
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