• Tensions rise, media polarized as U.N. special tribunal closes in on indictments.
• Technology bill includes several provisions that could restrict press freedom.
0: Arrests made in the murders of two journalists and a bomb attack against a third journalist in 2005.
Political tensions grew sharply in late year as the U.N.-sponsored Special Tribunal for Lebanon drew closer to issuing indictments in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. In November, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a documentary–based on what it described as tribunal sources and documents–that said investigators had uncovered evidence against members of Hezbollah, the Shiite paramilitary and political group with ties to Iran and Syria. The potential for indictments against Hezbollah members raised fears of sectarian violence and the collapse of a coalition government in which Hezbollah held a strong minority bloc. In November, the tribunal revised its rules on staging trials in absentia, apparently reflecting concerns that it may be unable to secure the arrests of the named suspects.
THE PRESS: 2010
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Middle East and North Africa:
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The CBC report portrayed a faltering tribunal probe that had ignored important investigative leads and seen its security compromised. The network also said investigators had long identified a senior Lebanese intelligence official as being involved in the blast that killed al-Hariri, a Sunni, and more than 20 others. The report drew a rare, public response from tribunal prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, who called it “extremely disappointing” and said he was reviewing its impact on the inquiry.
The al-Hariri assassination had marked a deadly year of politically inspired attacks that included the murders of two leading journalists and a bomb attack against a television anchor. The anti-press attacks have all gone unsolved, although the U.N. special tribunal was charged with examining all politically motivated attacks in Lebanon that year. Samir Qassir, an Al-Nahar columnist critical of Syrian influence in Lebanon, was killed in June 2005 when a bomb placed in his car detonated outside his Beirut home. In December of that year, Al-Nahar Managing Director Gebran Tueni was killed by a bomb that targeted his armored car in East Beirut. A 2007 report by the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission found evidence that the slayings of Qassir and Tueni might be linked to the al-Hariri assassination. May Chidiac, a television anchor for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation and another outspoken critic of Syrian influence, survived a 2005 assassination attempt in which she lost an arm and leg.
As frictions rose in late 2010, the coalition cabinet stopped meeting regularly, while Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey all sought to mediate differences between Lebanon’s political blocs. The tensions were mirrored in the press as media outlets presented competing narratives of the special tribunal’s activities. The pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat called it a “media war,” pointing particularly to the opposing accounts aired on the al-Hariri family-owned Al-Mustaqbal TV and the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV. The politically colored coverage reflected long-standing partisanship in the domestic press, said Roula Mikhael, executive director of the Beirut-based Maharat Foundation, a group promoting press freedom and democracy. “We are used to messages being sent from one political group to another through the press,” she said, noting that virtually all media outlets are closely aligned with political or sectarian groups.
Ghassan Moukhaiber, a member of parliament, submitted legislation in November to overhaul Lebanese press laws and bring them in line with international standards. The bill, drafted in consultation with the Maharat Foundation and journalists, would end prison penalties for publishing offenses and government licensing of news media. The bill was pending in late year.
In mid-year, parliament began considering a technology bill that included several provisions that could restrict press freedom. The bill, pending in late year, focused largely on electronic transactions, but it also called for the creation of a regulatory body with unfettered power to monitor or block electronic speech.
Under the bill, the new Electronic Signature and Services Authority would be empowered “to carry out financial, administrative, and electronic inspections to access any information or computer systems or tools related to operations, including those used for data processing of private information.” In addition, inspectors would have unhindered access to “any document, irrespective of its nature, and to generate copies of it.” The bill offered no safeguards against misuse of user information and provided no mechanism for challenging the regulatory agency’s decisions. The measure would require anyone providing online services to obtain a license from the regulatory agency, but it offered only vague criteria for how applications would be judged.
Reporting critically on the military remained a bright redline for the press. Hassan Alliq, a reporter for the daily Al-Akhbar, was interrogated in August concerning an article describing the flight of a retired army general accused of espionage. The piece suggested Lebanese intelligence officials colluded with Israeli counterparts to delay an investigation and allow the general to flee the country. Lebanese intelligence officers unsuccessfully pressed Alliq to reveal his sources, Al-Akhbar said. Defense Minister Elias Murr quickly convened a press conference to deny the allegations in Al-Akhbar‘s story and warn news media against challenging the military, news accounts said. He said journalists would be arrested and questioned if they reported information seen as defaming the army.
In August, a reporter was killed in crossfire while covering a border clash between Israeli and Lebanese military forces near the southern town of Al-Adaysseh. Assaf Abu Rahal, a reporter for the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, was struck by an Israeli shell after the skirmish broke out, according to news reports. The fighting was apparently triggered by an Israeli tree-cutting operation along the border. Lebanese authorities claimed Israeli forces crossed the border during the operation, an assertion Israel disputed. Abu Rahal’s death highlighted continuing instability along Israel’s border with Lebanon in the wake of the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The fighting in which Abu Rahal was killed was the deadliest along the border since the 2006 conflict, according to news reports.