Journalists and bloggers defy press crackdown

This column was first published in the April issue of Bold Magazine

A Thirst For Silence

By Habib Battah 

Conflict in Lebanon is often analyzed through the lens of simplistic dichotomies: pro-Syria and anti-Syria; pro Western and anti-Western, pro Hezbollah or anti-Hezbollah. But more often than not, Lebanon’s feuding politicians – many of them former warlords – have a lot in common and an increasingly common enemy: criticism and critical thought. 

Today politicians on both sides of the political divide are suing journalists and news publications. From the pro-Western March 14 party, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi is taking Al Akhbar newspaper to court over an editorial that mocked Lebanon’s president and asked him to leave office. Following the president’s criticism of Hezbollah military policies, the paper’s editor accused the president of “moral treason” and said his portrait hung in public offices was “an insult to all the Lebanese…” In defense of the lawsuit, Minister Rifi tweeted that the “time for insulting and debauchery has come to an end” and he pledged to “build a state where everyone is under the law.” 

But the idea that a singular minister will decide on what amounts to jail-able “debauchery” runs contrary to the very notion of equality under the rule of law. And if all Lebanese citizens are to be treated equally, why then is the president exempt from criticism according to the archaic Lebanese penal code? In fact it is publications loyal to Minister Rifi’s political associates that have regularly chastised Hezbollah with similar language. One broadcaster even called for the overthrow of the prime minister, leading a crowd of protesters toward his offices during a 2012 protest, urging them to take the building by force in clashes that injured several police officers. But no case was brought against him by the state. Where was the minister of justice then? 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Hezbollah-affiliated minister of energy is now suing Executive magazine for a story it ran with quotes from the minister himself. Executive had asked Minister Gebran Bassil about $33 million of revenues generated from the sale of seismic data revealing Lebanon’s potential offshore oil reserves. Executive dutifully printed Mr. Bassil’s reported answer: “You are asking questions I am not really aware of, about details that are not really important.” It is not clear on what basis Bassil can sue the magazine for using such a quote, but he has not denied saying it in a lengthy response issued to Executive following the initial article’s publication. In fact, in all 10 paragraphs of the rebuttal issued by the Energy ministry – and re-printed by Executive – the figure of $33 million does not appear once, save for a vaguely worded sentence that states Petroleum Administration budget funds “shall be deposited in an account at the Central Bank.” But there are no details as to exactly how much or when the amount will be deposited. 

Executive had also asked Minister Bassil about the yet-to-be published environmental impact assessment of pumping oil off the Lebanese coast, but that document was also not produced, according to the magazine. 

So does a minister have a right to sue a news organization for asking questions? Do the Lebanese people not have a right to know both specific details about their natural resources, the environmental impact of drilling and the minister’s specific answers when asked about those issues? Or is it being suggested that the media should not only self censor itself but also self censor the comments that have come out of politicians’ own mouths? 

Of course the threats faced by Lebanese media have not been restricted to legal action, but also entail physical violence. When a crew from Al Jadeed TV attempted to investigate allegations of millions of dollars in corruption at the Lebanese Customs administration late last year, they were reportedly denied an interview and thus resorted to asking for one over a megaphone outside his office. It wasn’t long before a crowd of armed security agents stormed the crew, breaking the megaphone and punching and kicking them in broad daylight, with all of the action caught on camera. The reporters were subsequently arrested but released hours later after a huge crowd had gathered outside the justice palace demanding their release. 

Attacks on those who challenge authority are not limited to the mainstream press. Several bloggers have been questioned over recent weeks and months by the state’s “cyber crimes” unit. Among the offenders are blog posts that have raised questions about unfair treatment of workers at a major supermarket chain and others that have covered questionable business practices at a pyramid investment scheme and an award show that charges participants exorbitant fees for prize collection. One popular twitter user was recently sentenced to two months in prison for insulting the president, in a ruling akin to punishments in autocratic Arab monarchies that have been uncommon in Lebanon where speech is relatively less regulated. 

Fortunately there is a silver lining to all this. As worrying as attacks on free expression have been, equally significant is the defiant reaction from those accused. By and large, bloggers have publicized their experiences in detail, stood by their posts and drawn hordes of supporters even among mainstream media outlets. National broadcaster LBC for example aired a tongue-in cheek-interview last month with one of the interrogated bloggers, introducing him nonchalantly as a “digital criminal.” The smiling host then preemptively and politely interrupts the blogger each time he begins answering a question. First she asks he not speak about the president, then the courts, then the customs authorities, then corruption, then Lebanese politics and political parties in general and of course religion. “Is there anything left to talk about,” he asks sheepishly. The host smiles and abruptly ends the show, adding: “This has been a very beneficial interview.” 

Meanwhile the beaten Al Jadeed TV crew has pressed on with its quest for answers from customs authorities and repeatedly played the video of agents assaulting its journalists, slowing down each frame and naming and shaming the officers involved. Printed press have also stood their ground, keeping the questionable articles available online. Al Akhbar has gone as far as laughing in the face of the state, challenging it to a battle in the courts and printing similarly-toned subsequent editorials, one in which the paper’s editor dares the state to sue, ending with “take your best shot.” Executive magazine, on the other hand has welcomed a trial as yet another chance to question the energy minister’s record and thanking him for it: “You have given us the opportunity to interrogate you on all your practices over the past five years in power. We will see you in court,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief recently wrote. 

Considering the amount of angst they have generated, one wonders if Lebanon’s politicians will backtrack on their lawsuits. The attention they have created has only cast new light on unanswered questions and potential abuses of power. It has also exponentially popularized the blog posts, tweets and news articles that have so offended them. But this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Lebanon’s government institutions are notoriously opaque as are the business holdings of individual politicians, many of whom are millionaires and billionaires. This is in addition to the government salaries and benefits they enjoy, which are over ten times average wages. Plus parliament only met twice in 2013, once to extend its mandate by delaying elections by over a year, a move seen as unconstitutional by many legal analysts. 

Yet even if the court cases do not see the light, that politicians are now pursuing such trivial issues may reveal a new power landscape where even in militia-ruled Lebanon, the richest and most powerful are increasingly on the defensive, challenged not just by the power of the mainstream press, but even by a short blog post or a 140-character tweet.


Watch the LBC clip mocking the press crackdown: