A spate of politically motivated attacks on journalists has restricted press freedom in Lebanon, according to a new report on the country by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).
The Middle Eastern country has plummeted 52 places in the media watchdog’s global index of press freedom over the past three years.
It was ranked to 108th out of 164 nations listed by RSF in its recently published 2005 annual report.
“Recent political changes in the country and insecurity have impacted on press freedom,” said Lynn Tehini, head of the Middle-East and North Africa desk at the organisation’s Paris headquarters.
She was referring to a wave of bombings which have swept Lebanon this year since a massive truck bomb that killed prime minister Rafik Hariri and 20 other people on 14 February.
Two of the bomb attacks which followed the assassination of Hariri specifically targeted journalists critical of Syria’s long-standing involvement in Lebanese politics.
Samir Qaseer, who worked for the popular daily newspaper An Nahar, died in a car bomb on 2 June.
On 25 September LBC TV anchor woman May Chidiac was left maimed after a similar car bomb attack.
Other outspoken Lebanese journalists noted for their anti-Syrian views have meanwhile received threats, RSF says in a new report on Lebanon to be published on 20 October.
“Most journalists are scared and are checking their cars for bombs at the moment and this has affected their right to move freely,” Tehini said.
“These are big names that have been targeted, so naturally journalists in the country felt their dignity and pride was harmed,” said Melhem Karam, President of the Lebanese Journalists Association..
“There was fear and the balance has shifted. It is going to take time to get back to normal, but I can tell that the process of rebuilding is on going,” he added.
No one has claimed responsibility for the bombings and no-one from the Lebanese government was available to comment on the RSF findings.
However, Syria is widely suspected of being linked to the attacks.
Four Lebanese generals - all allied to Syria – have been arrested as suspects in Hariri’s murder and a Syrian intelligence officer has been detained in France in connection with the killing.
Many diplomats anticipate that a UN investigation into the killing of the Lebanese leader, due to be submitted to the Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week, will implicate the authorities in Damascus.
The assassination of Hariri triggered a public outcry against 30 years of Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics and forced Damascus to withdraw its 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon two months later.
The two journalists targeted in the recent wave of bombings had both criticised Syria’s heavy handed interference in Lebanese affairs in the flowering of free speech which followed Syria’s troop withdrawal.
FREEDOM AFTER SYRIAN WITHDRAWAL
“Self-censorship was practiced on a large-scale during some 30-years of Syrian military and political domination of Lebanon when this freedom was restricted. But now, no official or unofficial censorship exists,” said Tewfik Mishlawi, a respected local journalist, who has covered Lebanon for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Following the assassination of Hariri, some newspapers and television stations urged Lebanon’s pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to step down for his alleged role in the assassination.
Such outspokenness would have been unthinkable in the days when Syrian troops patrolled the streets and Syrian intelligence agents were feared to be everywhere.
”Before, some subjects related to Syria were totally forbidden,” said Tehini at RSF.
She admitted that the Lebanese media was now able to criticise government actions more freely.
But she stressed that there was still a strong element of self censorship when it came to dealing with sectarian and religious issues in Lebanon, where local politics still follow a sensitive Muslim/Christian divide.
“Some of the subjects related to religion or even sometimes to politics for instance are taboo,” Tehini said.
FREEDOM UNDER THE LAW
Although Lebanon’s constitution enshrines the principle of press freedom, it forbids the media to slander or defame the president. Journalists who so are liable to prosecution.
This clause mirrors the spirit of restrictive spirit of press laws in other Arab countries such as Syria, Egypt and Yemen, where reporters face imprisonment or hefty fines for criticising the head of state.
Mishlawi noted that in Lebanon President Lahoud had gone on the record as saying ‘I will never punish journalists, even if they criticise me personally.”
Despite this pledge, RSF pointed out that the Lebanese government started legal proceedings against journalist Amer Mashmoushi last year for allegedly insulting the President in an article published on 17 July 2004 in the Beirut daily Al-Liwa.
The case is still pending, but RSF said that Mashmoushi and Nureddin al-Hosri, the publisher of Al-Liwa, both face up to two years in prison if convicted.
A further sign of government intolerance of free speech in the media was the December 2004 arrest of Tahsin Khayat, the owner of the local television station NTV for "suspected links" with Israel and for "undermining Lebanon’s relations with friendly countries," RSF said. He was later released without charge.
One factor favouring press freedom in Lebanon is that many newspapers and radio and television stations are privately owned. This contrasts with the situation in most Arab countries where the media is largely state run.
According to RSF, the most popular television station in Lebanon is the privately owned and anti-Syrian LBC.
It describes LBC as the second-most watched television station in the Middle East, after the Qatar based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel.
The family of Hariri, the murdered former prime minister, has strong influence in the media, owning Future TV, the daily paper Al-Mustaqbal and Radio Orient.
Hariri’s TV and radio studios were badly damaged in a rocket attack on the night of 14-15 June 2003.
But RSF said that was the only direct attack on a Lebanese media organization, as opposed to an invidividual journalist, to take place since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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