The red lines

Usually held up as a beacon for freedom of speech in a region where freedom comes at a preciously high price, Lebanon is today in the spotlight on account of score-settling between a Christian Lebanese family polarised by political differences and a government that some say has shown itself all too willing to repress free speech.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  October 6, 2002

|~||~||~|Usually held up as a beacon for freedom of speech in a region where freedom comes at a preciously high price, Lebanon is today in the spotlight on account of score-settling between a Christian Lebanese family polarised by political differences and a government that some say has shown itself all too willing to repress free speech.

On Sept. 4, 2002 Lebanese security forces station raided Murr television, or MTV after the Publications Court had ruled it had violated Article 68, which bans electoral publicity. MTV, which is owned by a newly elected opposition parliamentarian, Gabriel Murr, was accused of broadcasting footage to influence the election in his favour, harming relations with Syria, and undermining the dignity of the Lebanese president. The raid and closure provoked an outcry that has caused rifts within the government.

All of this took place because Gabriel Murr won the Metn by-elections and defeated his niece, Mirna Murr, the sister of Interior Minister Elias Murr, who is married to the daughter of President Emile Lahoud. You might say, so what? Some observers might say this is Lebanon; a country with open wounds left by 15-years of civil war, which have yet to heal. Others however, like Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst and columnist in the Daily Star, says, “Everything about this episode is very local, very parochial. I think the MTV station is linked to a by-election in the Metn district and the sordid politicking surrounding it.” To many, the by-elections in which Gabriel Murr emerged victorious were a referendum on what some consider as Syria’s domination of Lebanon.

After the election, MTV went off the air after security forces surrounded the building that houses the station and then raided its offices. Employees and supporters gathered outside the TV building in Beirut’s neighbourhood of Ashrafiyeh, but their efforts amounted to little more than a denunciation of the closure decision.

Gabriel Murr, owner of MTV, had his own explanation for the clampdown. “It’s because it [MTV] said to everyone ‘Vote, fill out your registration cards, do your duty,’” Murr told Reuters, adding that security forces had told MTV employees to evacuate the station’s headquarters. “It’s a purely political decision. We’ll carry out the order, but this isn’t the measure of things. When this becomes a military state, then we’ll understand,” added Murr.

Naturally, the closure sparked an outcry, with many deeming Lebanon’s judiciary as politicised, accusing it of trying to give a legal rationale for a state crackdown on media freedom. Comments that Ghazi Al Aridi, Lebanon’s minister of information, made in public and to Arabian Business support this view (see box). “The decision is a judicial one and I respect the judiciary but all of us in this country know how things go, and I personally know that the closure of MTV was requested [by some parties] and they succeeded,” Aridi said.
Prominent jurists have echoed the minister’s displeasure, arguing the court verdict was a legal blunder. Veteran politicians charged that the aim of the MTV closure was twofold: to punish Gabriel Murr for defeating his niece Mirna Murr in the Metn by-elections and push Lebanon closer to a police state run by a military government.

Others saw this episode as further evidence of the dwindling level of freedom of speech in Lebanon that could drive people away. “This is a message from the authorities that they can pretty much do what they want if their parochial political interests are at risk,” Michael Young told Reuters. “They’re sending a message that they are willing to intimidate the forces who oppose them. The state is saying this is a legal decision but everybody knows it is a blatant political decision,” he added.

Yet criticism by France and the U.S. of the MTV episode was rejected by Lebanon. A statement issued by the US embassy in Beirut had said: “Legal justification for this action was based primarily on the content of MTV’s programming,” continuing, “This unfortunate incident is at odds with Lebanon’s long history of commitment to freedom of speech and political expression. We believe that Lebanon’s long-term interests are best served by permitting the expression of a multitude of opinions that represent Lebanon’s rich and diverse society.”
Ghazi Al Aridi responded to the closure with a statement saying his country, “is not waiting for lessons by those who terrorise the Arabs and Muslims in the United States.”

Aridi’s disgruntlement did not stop there, however, and the MTV debacle threatened to spin out of control further. An unidentified diplomat told the Daily Star that officials had decided to summon US Ambassador, Vincent Battle, to the foreign ministry to express Lebanon’s official reaction to the US view.

The criticism is, however, internal as well as external. Information Minister Aridi, at the time of the incident, denied prior knowledge of the closure decision and joined criticism of the way in which the situation was handled on the premises. Aridi questioned the closure and slammed the Lebanese security forces for their handling of the raid. “The officer in charge says he is just following his orders,” Aridi had told reporters. “But I don’t think there are orders to beat people and lock citizens in the building.”
Lebanese newspapers published a front-page statement by the press syndicate and the journalists’ union denouncing the “unjust” suspension of MTV and its sister radio station, Radio Mont Liban (RML).

The statement called on the Publications Court to accept an appeal lodged by the stations’ lawyers against its decision to shut down MTV and RML. “Out of our keenness to protect public freedoms and the independence of the judiciary, we direct ourselves to the Publications Court, expecting it to deal immediately and positively with the appeal,” it said. “Despite our esteem for the judiciary, we cannot but consider this measure to be unjust and out of place, especially as it comes amid a tense political climate.” Beirut newspapers suggested protesting with a “white media day” on which newspapers would print white pages and audiovisual media go off the air. Media executives were also contemplating a boycott of covering activities by government officials and Lebanon’s two bar associations held a strike “to counter attempts against freedoms.”

Reporting on the strike, the Daily Star condemned the government’s move as a threat to freedom and democracy. More than 6,000 members of the Bar Association took part in the action, bringing courts to a halt across the country while lawyers for MTV lodged their appeal against the Publications Court’s decision.
The Bar Association condemned the closure as an infringement of public liberties and an “attack against the country’s existence that threatens the democratic system.” As a result, Interior Minister Murr, said in a statement, “Due to the calls for demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and reports about possible confrontations, all demonstrations and sit-ins are banned.” The turn of events doesn’t bode well for a country trying to rehabilitate its image and revive tourism.

According to eyewitnesses, large parts of the Solidere downtown were closed to the public by security forces during the strikes and demonstrations. “This obviously affects tourism,” one observer told Arabian Business, “especially when you consider the number of restaurants and shops unable to open to tourists for a day during peak season.” A professor at the American University of Beirut says: “In my opinion it is way out of line with the way a modern judicial system and society should function. It is exaggerated,” adding “This is a violation of a basic tenet of our society in Lebanon—which is the freedom of speech.”

However, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri told press syndicate leaders seeking his intervention, “I do not want to interfere in a judicial decision.” In an effort to check mounting hostility, pro-Syrian politicians, including government ministers and MPs, took part in a “national gathering for the defence of freedoms.” Hope of any positive outcome was short lived after fists were thrown by pro-Syrian deputies at the head of the Beirut Bar Association, Raymond Shedid, who has been critical of the government.

Lebanon’s chief prosecutor, Adnan Addoum, rejected to repeal the court order filed by MTV’s lawyers, saying it was up to the court to rule on an appeal. Daily newspapers across the political spectrum in Lebanon published on Sept. 10 a front-page call for freedom following the forcible closure of MTV. Some say that MTV is not a case in point—citing the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), the country’s leading television station, dealing with charges of allegedly inciting sectarian friction over its coverage of a Muslim office worker’s killing of Christian colleagues at the end of July.

A lawsuit was filed against LBCI, for “instigating sectarianism” by highlighting the religion of the culprit and victims in a recent crime report. In this highly charged atmosphere where the media is being squeezed, MTV can find solace that it is not alone. LBC’s decision to stop broadcasting for 15 minutes in solidarity with its sister station exemplifies the refusal to accept restrcitions on the right to speak freely. “The situation brings out the best and the worst of the Lebanese system,” says Simon Williams, senior economist of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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