Reporters Without Borders expresses concern over recent verdicts against journalists and media organizations by the country’s publications court. The court was established to settle disputes over defamation and libel cases.
The press freedom organization calls for comprehensive reform of all laws concerning the practice of journalism in Lebanon. Currently, the press law (adopted in 1962, amended in 1977, 1994 and 1999), covers print media only. Journalists working for broadcast and digital media are covered by criminal law.
In addition, a judge has recourse to other laws that can be applied to journalists. Criminal law aside, these include the national defence law. All of these laws include provisions that authorize restrictions on journalists’ work, a Lebanese NGO representative told Reporters Without Borders last year.
But no law guarantees freedom of access to information. Also lacking: a law ensuring that reporters’ can protect a source’s identity.
To be sure, only one journalist has been sentenced to prison in recent years – Rami Aysha, who was charged in military court. Otherwise, judges have levied fines. However, the press law does authorize prison terms for journalists.
On 26 February, Journalist Mohamed Nazzal was fined 12 million Lebanese pounds (5,800 euros). Al-Akhbar, the newspaper for which he works, was fined the same amount. In addition, damages and interest of 15 million Lebanese pounds (7,200 euros) were levied against each.
Nazzal had published on an article on judicial corruption last May. The report centred on the freeing of a drug trafficker whose father is a well-known businessman. The magistrate in the case sued for defamation. She also claimed that the article contained falsehoods. Subsequently, then-Justice Minister Chakib Kortbawi, opened judicial misconduct proceedings against the magistrate, leading to his demotion.
Even so, the journalist and newspaper were both found guilty of defamation on 14 February.
Meanwhile, journalist Rasha Abou Zaki, a former contributor to the economics section of Al-Akhbar, was sentenced on 26 February to a fine of 4 million Lebanese pounds (1,900 euros) on a conviction for slander. She had published an article on 27 January concerning corruption and embezzlement in the Finance Ministry. She had also questioned why some elected officials were opposing any investigation of the ministry’s accounts.
Fouad Siniora, former finance minister in 1992-1998 and 2002-2004, sued Abu Zaki, alleging insult and contempt.
At trial, the judge praised the journalist’s objectivity, citing the article’s balanced tone. Nonetheless, she was sentenced on 26 February to a fine of 4 million Lebanese pounds (1,900 euros) on a finding that she had treated Siniora with contempt amount to slander. “Slander, seen as an attack on dignity and honor, is grounds” for conviction,” the verdict added.
Abou Zaki, who had presented more than 100 documents in her defense, refused to pay the fine. Ibrahim Al-Amin, the newspaper’s editor in chief, was also sentenced to a fine of 4 million Lebanese pounds.
Following these defamation verdicts, the management of Al-Akhbar has announced that it will not appear in the press court as long as Rokez Razk sits as presiding judge. He is the judge who entered guilty verdicts against Nazzal, Abou Zaki and other journalists for defamation or falsehood.
Mohammed Zbeeb, another reporter for Al-Akhbar, was sued for slander by Michael Wright and the Spinneys firm. The charge was prompted by an article published in January of last year. Zbeeb, in refusing on 26 February to appear in the press court, said that journalists were facing a campaign of vengeance. Razk was violating the constitutional separation of powers, Zbeeb added. His trial date was continued to 21 May.
The day after an openly anti-Hezbollah televised speech by the country’s president on 2 March, Al-Amin, the Al-Akhbar editor, published an article entitled, “Lebanon Without a President". The article denounced alleged corruption by the president and the justice minister.
One day later, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi issued a press release announcing that he was suing the journalist. The minister said the article was filled with insults, accusations of treason, and contemptuous language directed at President Michel Suleiman. The article, Rifi charged, also incited civil resistance and attacks against security and military institutions. “These attacks on the dignity and office of the president of the republic have nothing to do with freedom of the press, which is guaranteed by the constitution and law,” Rifi said. “They amount to an attack on State institutions and open the door to criminal attacks on officials.”.
Prompted by these lawsuits and convictions, journalists and activists have launched a support campaign – “Not a criminal” – to draw attention to the legal perils facing information providers.
In addition, blogger and activist Imad Bazzi was interrogated for three hours on 13 March by the Cyber Crime Bureau as the result of a complaint filed by a former minister. The complaint was prompted by an article of 11 December of last year on Bazi’s Trella.org blog, which cited an abuse of power by the public figure. According to Al-Akhbar, the case has been referred for prosecution.
The LBC News network has devised an original way of denouncing the flurry of lawsuits and convictions of journalists. On 14 March, when Bazzi had been invited to appear on the “Nharkom Saeed” (Have a Good Day) political program, the broadcast was cut off eight minutes after it began. The host then told the blogger that he would not be allowed to express his views on the President of the Republic, on judicial authorities, religion, the and the new government. Otherwise the network, and Bazzi himself, could face prosecution. The bottom line: the blogger and the host blacked out the program themselves because there was no political topic on which they could speak freely.