RSF denounces unlawful summoning of Megaphone News director in Lebanon

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the two illegal summonses for questioning that a Lebanese news website director received in less than a week over an article critical of senior officials, including the prosecutor behind the summonses, which RSF regards as yet another attempt to intimidate Lebanon’s journalists.

Jean Kassir, the director of the independent Megaphone News website, was turning into a narrow Beirut street on 30 March when two plainclothes tapped on his car window and handed him a summons to report for questioning the next day at the Central Inspection Directorate, a branch of the General Directorate of State Security (DGSE). No reason was given on the summons. Kassir refused to go on the grounds that Lebanon’s DGSE is not authorised to investigate journalists. His lawyer went instead.

Although no reason was given for the summons, Megaphone News linked it to an article it published on 1 March, headlined “Lebanon ruled by fugitives from justice.” It named several prominent figures accused of “various crimes ranging from looting public money and illegal enrichment to obstructing the law”. They included prosecutor-general Ghassan Oueidat, who is charged in connection with the August 2020 Beirut port explosion and who – according to Megaphone News – was the person who gave the order to investigate the website. Oueidat is well known for initiating legal proceedings in January against Tarek Bitar, the judge tasked with investigating the explosion.

The summons was all the more surprising because no official complaint has been filed against Kassir. “If the prosecutor-general wants to respect the law, he must refer the matter to the court of publications, because Megaphone News is registered as a media site with the information ministry,” his lawyer said.

“Not only was Jean Kassir summoned on the public prosecutor’s direct order, which constitutes a flagrant abuse of authority against a journalist, but the method used to deliver the summons – sending state security agents to intercept him in the street – recalls the illegal and violent methods used by militias during Lebanon’s civil war. This was an attempt to intimidate Megaphone News and, indirectly, all journalists who might dare to investigate Lebanon’s widespread corruption.”

Middle East desk at RSF

It is not unusual in Lebanon for journalists to be summoned for questioning but the way Kassir was summoned has been condemned by journalists, activists, parliamentarians and press freedom organisations in social media posts. Information minister Ziad Makari said he would follow the case, affirming his commitment to defend freedom of expression, as guaranteed in the Lebanese constitution.

On 3 April, a demonstration in support of Kassir was held outside Beirut’s main courthouse by the Alternative Press Union Coalition, an independent coalition of journalists who feel they are not represented in the official press union. In a statement condemning Kassir’s summons, the Coalition said it said recalled a time when “militias intercepted cars and interrogated journalists in dark dungeons reeking of torture and human rights violations.”

This is an issue that concerns “all of the media in Lebanon and all citizens,” said Kassir, who attended the demonstration. “This is the last resort of a government that is incapable of managing the country’s basic needs,” Kassir told RSF’s correspondent. “It silences journalists who try to report the story as it is. But Megaphone News will keep reporting it.”

This did not stop state security officials from going to the Beirut home of Kassir’s parents a few hours after the demonstration to deliver a new summons for Kassir to report for questioning on 4 April. Kassir again refused to go, letting his lawyer represent him. That same day, the information ministry called him to say the prosecutor-general had “withdrawn his complaint.” Megaphone News was not officially notified of the decision.

Megaphone News was already threatened with prosecution over its coverage of the investigation into the Beirut port explosion. On 26 January, justice minister Henry Khoury announced that he planned to bring “fake news” proceedings against the website over an Instagram post entitled “Justice minister leads coup against Bitar.” Khoury said he was ready to prosecute any media outlet that “fabricates and publishes false and misleading information” about his ministry.

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