The Cost of Freedom

A series of brutal attacks has left the proud Lebanese press looking over its shoulder

Fellows Fall 2005

By Rebecca Sinderbrand

June 01, 2009

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Nabil Bou Monsef has a new daily commuting routine. As before, he leaves the house and gets into his car; but now, before he turns on his car radio, he searches under the driver’s seat for bombs, checks to make sure he’s not being followed, and then drives to work at An-Nahar, where he is the Lebanon news editor. He’s not alone. Over the past few months, Bou Monsef’s ritual has been adopted by hundreds of journalists across Lebanon. “This is the most dangerous time for reporters here, more than ever before. Even more than during the civil war,” he says. “Because now journalists aren’t just caught in the crossfire. Now we are being targeted ourselves.”

It’s been a bittersweet year for the Lebanese press. Many journalists here feel proud of the media’s role in what’s come to be known as “Beirut spring.” On February 14, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a brutal bombing, and the weeks of peaceful protest against Syria that followed his assassination – along with consistent coverage by the country’s media - are widely credited with playing a significant role in Syria’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon after roughly thirty years of occupation Yet while the post-assassination liberation may have been surprisingly bloodless, the new freedom has proven decidedly more costly. Threats, intimidation, and targeted killings, widely believed to be by Syrian sympathizers, have dominated public life here – a trend that began before Hariri’s killing and has only intensified. This orchestrated chaos has included a flurry of bombings that killed and seriously injured journalists. Winter has arrived in Beirut, and spring has never seemed quite so far away.

Despite some government interference, and an arguable amount of self-censorship, Lebanese journalists I spoke with recently described the pre-withdrawal past with something approaching nostalgia. And justifiably so. Most of the press in the Arab world is state-run and hews to the party line, what-ever it may be; in Lebanon, mostly hands-off private ownership, whatever the original political pedigree, has made for a far more freewheeling media environment. Moreover, with free-speech protections guaranteed by law, the relatively independent Lebanese press managed to span the political spectrum, even under Syrian domination, making it the envy of the region.

The past wasn’t all scoops and sunshine. Just as in many of its less press-friendly neighbors, criticism of the wrong people in Lebanon has always brought serious consequences, legal and otherwise. The same Lebanese constitution that guarantees press freedom also forbids the media from slandering or defaming the president. Indeed, in July 2003 the Lebanese government started legal proceedings against the journalist Amer Mashmoushi, accusing him of insulting President Emile Lahoud in an article published in the Beirut daily Al-Liwaa, a charge that carried the risk of up to two years’ imprisonment. And in December 2003, the owner of New TV (NTV), Tahsin Khayat, was arrested for “suspected links” with Israel and for “undermining Lebanon’s relations with friendly countries.” He was eventually released, but soon after, a searing broadcast about the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon earned his station a government-mandated forty-eight-hour ban on political programming.

Still, the freewheeling spirit of Beirut dailies – from the left-wing As-Safir to the more centrist stalwart An-Nahar – makes them popular reads throughout the Middle East. Even under Syrian scrutiny, Lebanese newspapers led the Arab world in hard-hitting investigative journalism; crusading columnists openly called for politicians’ resignations, and for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. In recent years, the columnists Samir Kassir of An-Nahar led the pack; his 2001 column, WHO ARE YOU A SOLDIER AGAINST?, blasted the military and intelligence forces for misusing their power to restrain free speech and political activism, a subject he returned to time and again. Others, including Joseph Samaha of As-Safir, took regular aim at corruption and hypocrisy within the political establishment, and openly named military figures suspected of doing Damascus’s bidding.

But now certain topics have become taboo. Some journalists and observers say that much of the serious investigation into the trail of financial support and logistical links between the Assad regime in Damascus, the remaining pro-Syrian elements within the Lebanese security apparatus, and the Hezbollah organization operating out of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, ended after Rafik Hariri was killed. The risk involved in reporting those stories, they say, are danger enough – enough actually publishing them in the current environment seems likely to seal a journalist’s own death warrant.

 

Even in a city renowned for brashness and style, Samir Kassir stood out. He was known for his blunt denunciation of Damascus and for the Gauloise cigarettes he smoked constantly. He earned his chops with the generation of Lebanese journalists who reported on the civil war that began in 1975, when the city once called the “Paris of the Middle East” dissolved into a maelstrom of bloodlust and conflicting loyalties. Erudite and charming, he cut a charismatic figure. Several friends describe him as a “soldier,” because “he always had a mission.”

By late 2004, his overriding mission was chronicling the orchestrated campaign of intimidation and violence aimed at Lebanon elite. As reporters here described it, the cycle began in earnest last year as fallout from the bitter battle between President Lahoud and the increasingly independent Prime Minister Hariri. Forces sympathetic to Syria had a longstanding policy of intimidation aimed at outspoken public figures. This policy began to grow increasingly bold, eventually edging into murder. Four years ago, around the time he wrote his memorable broadside against some elements of the nation’s security forces, Kassir had his Lebanese passport taken away by the government. With the new escalation, agents started trailing him openly, even during daylight hours. For Kassir, friends say, it eventually became a sort of grim joke. During one afternoon café visit, he reportedly told the establishment’s owner he’d pick up the check for the man following him as well.

On the morning of June 2, 2005, days after one final column denouncing Syria’s rulers for ignoring dissenting viewpoints, Kassir was blown apart by a small car bomb placed under the driver’s seat of his silver Alfa Romeo, just yards from his home in Beirut’s Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyyeh. The effect on the press was immediate and devastating. “They chose a very successful target, from their perspective,” says Mohammed Mattar, Kassir’s friend and lawyer who is now representing Kassir’s widow, the al-Arabiya journalist Gisele Khoury. “His death has left a huge vacuum. There’s no replacement for him for some time to come. For now, everyone is in danger.”

Kassir’s murder followed a grotesquely familiar pattern. The explosion was scientific in its precision, leaving no doubt about who’d been targeted. A previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the murder, threatening further attacks against Syrian critics. It began to be whispered among leading Lebanese that there was a “black list” circulating, a roll call of prominent political leaders and journalists who were to be systematically eliminated.

The United States, France, and the United Nations all immediately denounced Lahoud’s resignation and called for a general strike to protest the murder. In Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, hundreds of journalists gathered and defiantly held pens aloft in a silent celebration of press freedom. The gesture was short-lived. Soon after Kassir’s death, word of a threat from Syrian-backed forces sent Kassir’s boss, Gebran Tueni, An-Nahar’s publisher and a newly elected member of parliament, fleeing the country for Paris. Tueni joined a mini-exodus of leading press figures seeking safety overseas, in a trend reminiscent of the dark civil war days. Months later, An-Nahar; along with dozens of other media outlets, remains in lockdown mode, still adjusting to the new state of siege.

Michael Young, the opinion-page editor of the English-language Daily Star, worries that the significance of Kassir’s death was missed by the world beyond Beirut. “At his funeral, I was sad, but mostly I was angry. I thought to myself, this is an essential moment,” says Young, sitting in the fashionable Water Lemon café just a few blocks from the bombing site. “Looking back now, I think he went very cheaply. If his death led to new breakthrough, perhaps there would be some solace. But so far, his death has just been followed by more death.”

 

An-Nahar is the oldest currently published paper in Beirut and one of the most widely respected dailies in the Arab world. Everyday, around a hundred journalists report for work at a stylish building on the edge of the city’s rejuvenated downtown district, a renewal project that was spearheaded by Hariri in the 1990s and has since become a major source of his lingering mystique – a fragile but hopeful symbol of the city’s rebirth.

The sun is setting over the Mediterranean on a rainy November evening, but the day is just beginning for Nabil Bou Monsef, the paper’s veteran Lebanon editor. It has been just a few days since Detlev Mehlis, sent by the UN to investigate the Hariri assassination, issued a preliminary report pointing a finger at the Syrian leadership. Despite the Eid holiday that marks the end of the month-long Ramadan fast, the newsroom outside Bou Monsef’s glass-walled office hums with activity. “The older reporters here, like me, lived through the civil war,” he says wearily. “So this fear is not completely foreign to us. The mood of young journalists who didn’t have this experience, yes, they are afraid. It seems now is their time to suffer.”

Some reporters, particularly those with families, are growing reluctant to take reporting risks. Once again there are invisible redlines on Lebanon’s map, as nervous journalists seek to minimize or avoid traveling to or reporting on certain areas. Not unlike during the civil war, the no-go zones are at times determined by sectarian allegiance. For instance, some Christian reporters say they are hesitant to spend extended periods in the Bekaa Valley, which serves as a base for the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia. Other boundaries are nearly universal – for instance, it’s difficult to find many correspondents willing to venture repeatedly into the notorious Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. Some reporters, worn down by a year of stress with no end in sight, have started to talk openly of leaving the business altogether.

Still, the weeks-long lull following the Chidiac attack had some journalists hopeful that the violence had ended. But for the columnist Joseph Samaha, it was merely the end of the beginning. “I am a pessimist. I think that Lebanon is not coming out of a crisis. I think we are going into crisis,” he says, as he puffs on his third cigarette in less than ten minutes. It’s the tail end of the Eid holiday, and he’s ensconced at a table at the Star Café in downtown Beirut. “The situation in Syria is very much unresolved. I am fully expecting the other shoe to drop.”

 

After Samir Kassir’s murder, massive security cordons sprang up around the headquarters of the country’s major media organizations. Government patrols joined armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs, creating a sense of siege as daily reports of near misses and rumors of thwarted attacks kept reporters on edge. In September, for instance, Ali Ramez Tohme, a journalist and author of a pro-Hariri book, was the target of a car bomb that exploded under his driver’s seat when he wasn’t there. Still, with all of this new scrutiny, it was assumed no one would be able to reach another media luminary. Until someone did.

The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) is the most popular television channel in Lebanon and, after Al-Jazeera, the second-most-watched channel in the Middle East. Originally created by local Christian militia forces, the network devotes a large share of its resources to serving the needs of the Lebanese diaspora: the educated elite, particularly Christian, that has been steadily bleeding away over three decades of civil war and economic upheaval. Broadcasting from LBC headquarters in the Beirut suburb of Adma, the journalist May Chidiac was a regular presence in living rooms in Lebanon and abroad for the past twenty years. The immensely popular host cushioned tough questions with the on-screen persona of a Lebanese Diane Sawyer: Blond. Polished. Trustworthy.

The last week in September, just days after the Tohme near miss, Chidiac hosted a program exploring Syria’s involvement in the death of Rafik Hariri, and public fears of further violence. Sometime between her last shift at LBC and a leisurely brunch at a nearby friend’s house, someone placed an explosive charge under the driver’s seat of her Range Rover. The force of the explosion, which left the hood of her car dangling from a tree some thirty feet away, critically wounded Chidiac, who lost her left arm and leg. She remains in the hospital, still trying to make sense of the events of that morning. “Every day, May asks, ‘Why me?’” say her fellow LBC reporter Dolly Ghanem. “I tell her it is a message from those who want to control us. They are saying, ‘You may think you have control. But do not think you are getting free so easily.’”

Again Beirut’s journalist gathered in protest. This time, they were not silent. “I promise May that my voice is hers and my arm is hers and my leg is hers until she comes back to us,” an anguished Ghanem told a gathering in Beirut shortly after the attack. “No one can terrorize the freedom of expression in the country,” a flustered but insistent Information Minister Ghazi Aridi told the Daily Star. “It is our responsibility to protect the Lebanese media...We believe that the word can protect us. By arming ourselves with the free and conscious word we can provide ourselves with a small measure of protection.”

But one can’t block bullets with broadsheets, and many leading media figures now find it increasingly difficult to pull off high-wire reporting. “They are targeting the opinion makers,” says Chidiac’s boss, LBC chief executive officer, Pierre Daher. “That stays in the back of your mind, no matter how hard you try. You think, this word, this sentence, this picture – will it mean death threats? You’d like to think it won’t change how you do your job. But people here at LBC are on the forefront. Of course they are nervous.” There is no grand gesture of capitulation. Instead there’s an immeasurable rise in sins of omission – leads not followed, angles not pursued. Wajed Ramadan, a young French-language reporter who works for Future TV, the LBC’s crosstown counterpart, shares Daher’s sentiments. “Even with the security, you don’t feel secure,’ she said. “You worry about how people you cover will react to your stories. Some of them have guns, and some of them have bombs. All May Chidiac did was ask questions – that is all. So you see the price for questioning some people is very high.” (During the last weekend of November, Chidiac appeared briefly on LBC for the first time since the attack. She discussed the incident, and promised to return to work as soon as her prosthetic limbs are ready.)

For Ramadan and her colleagues, safety is now the X-factor in all editorial decisions. It’s a complex, highly personal calculation, with one unavoidable metric; when visibility equals risk, invisibility is no longer a career-killer to be avoided – it’s a life-saver to be embraced. Speaking against Syrian domination, especially given the current climate, remains a badge of honor, but untangling the web of links between members of the Lebanese elite and the infrastructure of Syrian occupation remains lonely, dangerous work.

 

During the last three years, Lebanon has plummeted fifty-two spots – to 108th out of 167 countries – on the global index of press freedom produced annually by Reporters San Frontieres. “Journalists are still able to speak more freely than in other Arab countries,” says Lynn Tehini, who heads RSF’s Middle East and North Africa desk. “It’s the deteriorating security situation that has affected their ability to work…Of course, because of this, there are stories that are not being pursued.” The Daily Star’s Michael Young concurs. “There’s no doubt that through these attacks, there is a message being sent to the Lebanese press. They’re trying to create a climate of fear that will impact our coverage.” Even those who continue to speak bluntly now think twice before launching investigations into sensitive subjects like Hezbollah.

The lack of resolution surrounding the attacks maintains the climate of fear; no one has yet been charged with ordering any of the press attacks or intimidation of the past few months. The anxiety level among reporters after a year under fire is matched by the acknowledged helplessness of government officials. According to the Daily Star, Information Minister Aridi told worried reporters meeting to discuss security issues shortly after the Chidiac bombing, “There will perhaps be more prices to pay, and more sacrifices to be made. But that, unfortunately, is the fate of all Lebanese journalists.”

Indeed, on December 12, the same day that Detlev Mehlis released his final report on Rafik Hariri’s assassination, Gebran Tueni, An-Nahar’s outspoken publisher, became the latest journalist to pay the ultimate price when he was killed by a massive car bomb as he drove to work the day after he had returned from Paris.

Overwhelmed officials, citing a lack of crime-fighting technology and expertise, have asked for foreign help to end the carnage. Chidiac’s case, for instance, is now being investigated with help from the FBI. Samir Kassir held dual citizenship with France, so the French have launched their own inquiry into his death, assigning veteran terror prosecutor Jean-Louis Bruguiere to head that investigation. The Committee to Protect Journalists sent an open letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan shortly before the release of the first Mehlis report this fall, pleading with him to include press attacks in that team’s mandate. After Tueni was killed, Marwan Hamade, Lebanon’s telecommunications minister and Tueni’s uncle, threatened to resign if the government did not demand an immediate UN investigation. Within days, the UN announced that it would provide technical assistance to Lebanese investigators.

Still, the continuing inability of Lebanon’s own government to impose order on the situation remains a major source of frustration. “Nobody is defending journalists,” says Nabil Bou Monsef, bluntly. “In this chaos, people are getting killed. It is not clear how long this will last. I’m sure it will end soon.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because it must,” he says quietly.

But given the pall hanging over the country after Gebran Tueni’s death, it’s hard to dismiss Josehp Samaha’s darker assessment of the reality facing Lebanon’s journalists. “Maybe sometime in the years to come, if there is not another civil war, then we will have calm in Lebanon and Syria. But I cannot see that day right now.”