Human Rights for Lebanon
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THE SILENCE OF THE AIR WAVES
by Stephen J. Stanton
The need to speak to you tonight is occasioned by the recent events resulting in the closure of the Lebanese TV station, MTV, and its sister radio company, RML.They effectively represent the main voice of the anti-Syrian Christian opposition for both the air waves and the TV waves which once rang with their sound and the sight of their images but are now silent. Regardless of how one views this silence, in whatever respect it has been ruthlessly imposed, it is a deadly silence, one which is as silent as the grave. We will tonight discuss how it came about, and what its implications are for Lebanon and, more importantly, for the citizens of Lebanon, our brothers and sisters in the homeland of our birth and in the vanguard of what is our cultural ancestry.
The catalyst for the closure of MTV and RML was, in itself, a precedent and represented ground-breaking development in what has already been a country besieged and held to ransom by the terrorist regime of Syria working through the equally nefarious and puppet-like administration of the Lebanese Government. In what was termed a "fraternal feud" put down to the fact that it was Christian opposition MP Gabriel Murr having a difference of opinion with his brother, Michel Murr, a Cabinet Minister. Hence the official line it had nothing to do with the government. The authorities sought to decry, or certainly denounce, what was the real genesis for the closure of the media outlets. The catalyst for the suspension of the radio and TV station, lay in the elections that were held for the Metn By-election in June 2002.
The conduct that was ultimately charged against the media outlets was a violation of Article 68 of the Parliamentary Election law. The media outlets were charged, and ultimately convicted of the offence, that they ran election advertising which in turn harmed relations with Syria and undermined the dignity of the Lebanese President by broadcasting illegal election propaganda. When the matter was brought before the Election Court, or the Publication Court, as it is interchangeably known, the result was, to say the least, predictable. The outlets were found guilty and the penalty imposed was an immediate closure of the twin television and radio stations. The response was equally swift and reactive. In what is a pluralistic society, composed of diverse creeds and racial ethnicities, the condemnation was swift and severe. The Beirut Bar Association met and announced a strike for Friday, 6 September and it was joined, in the chorus of condemnation, by such diverse groups as the Lebanese Communist Party, the Christian Opposition Group, Qornet Shehwan, the Movement for Democratic Renewal and the leftist Democratic Tribune, all of whom called for protests. This development was equally astounding, in terms of the support that it gained and was gathering for it. The Lebanese Maronite Patriarch, His Beatitude Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, condemned the closure in caustic terms. His counterpart in the Orthodox Community, Archbishop Elias Audeh, was equally trenchant in his caustic criticism of the suspension orders and in his Sunday sermon he is reported to have said: "Freedom is a red line that we will not allow anyone to cross".
But what was remarkable was that it was one of the very few occasions that Diplomatic Missions had been sufficiently incensed to make public their protest. It incurred the wrath of the US Ambassador and an official from the French Embassy. The US Ambassador, Vincent Battle, commenting on the closure, made a statement which, in part, said that he was "deeply troubled by the Government of Lebanon's decision to close MTV". The French Ambassador, his Excellency, Phillippe Lecourtier, referred to a statement made on the MTV closure by one of his country's spokesmen, Francois Rivassot, in which the learned gentleman expressed sentiments equally grave as the US position, though it must be noted that he was not speaking for the French Government, as such. The Beirut Bar Association was literally livid, meeting and announcing not only a strike, but a strike to counter attempts against freedoms. Even Ministers in the Government, such as the Minister of the Displaced, Marwan Hamadeh, strongly denounced the suspension, accusing the judicial authorities of "obeying the orders of an invisible power". He was joined by Ministers Aridi and Administrative Reforms Minister, Fouad Saad, all bearing allegiance to the Druze Overlord, Walid Jumblatt. They indicated their protest by not showing up at their respective Ministries on Thursday, 5 September 2002. Members of Parliament in the Qornet Shehwan, which constitutes a leading Christian opposition group, opposed to Syrian hegemony and presence in Lebanon, denounced the new attempt to curtail freedom constituted by the closure of the twin media outlets.
In all of this, the ever-laconic Lebanese President Lahoud was mute. Equally inert was his Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Both gentlemen, who are never lost for words, were remarkably stoic on the closure of the media outlets. Little surprise though, when one considers that puppets can only speak when they are manipulated by the appropriate insertion of a finger or fingers in a particular part of their anatomy, to voice the activation - there certainly could be no activation of any other vital organ or, for that matter, discernible intelligence.
However, the developments did not remain inert or, for that matter were received with no comment or lack of stimulus by concerned organisations around the world. In the United States, the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, denounced the closure of Lebanon's media outlets as: "the arbitrary and violent actions of the Lebanese Security Forces are a grave threat to press freedom in the country". The CPJ Executive Director, Ann Cooper, said as much in a statement faxed to the Association for Freedom of the Press in Beirut. She required the immediate re-opening of the media outlets and for Security Forces to cease and desist assaulting and harassing employees.
What was significant about the closure was the fact that a government-backed candidate, in a Metn election was not elected to Parliament and this was attributed to the campaign (vigorous) run by the media outlets and for which they paid the ultimate price. It mattered little that the election was run vigorously and along democratic lines of free and open public discussion of the issues at hand, and that the populace were encouraged to vote with a free and open mind, and did so.
It represented the ultimate repression of both the electorate and the right to vote, and more importantly, the emasculation of the right to receive information which should be both free and open to all and sundry in a democratic society. Ideal as this sentiment is, and enshrined in many organic documents, such as the Constitution of Lebanon and the international instruments on fundamental freedoms, it was swept away, as one would use a tissue when wiping one's nose.
The arrogance of the government was not restricted to the judicial pronouncement of the Publication Court. At a meeting of concerned citizens to protest the closure, and in particular by the President of the Beirut Bar Association, Raymond Shedid, Government Members turned up and literally hijacked the meeting, throwing their weight around, resulting in the meeting having to be abandoned.
Present at the meeting was the cowardly cretin, Health Minister, Suleiman Franjieh. In a desperate move to show leadership, albeit limp, he attempted to calm the situation by meeting with MTV employees and assuring them that the country's judiciary were sufficiently desensitised from politics and were to be applauded and not criticised for their judgment.
He was drowned out, in terms of his attempts to communicate the sentiments so soberly expressed, and was seen to leave the hall dumbfounded and defeated, surrounded by personnel from the Internal Security Forces, who invariably are his constant travelling companions wherever he goes in the Lebanon.
When considering the Government spokespersons on this matter, it would be regrettable if we left out the Prosecutor General, Mr Adnan Addoum. His legendry legacy to the administration of justice in Lebanon is his bias and his failure to accord to the ideals of what a Prosecutor should be in a continental system of justice. On his hands are the blood of many hapless victims for whom he has perpetrated their conviction and sentencing, among them are Dr Samir Geagea and many other Lebanese Forces personnel. He is the principal architect in the many miscarriages of justice that purport to be trials of capital offences which are nothing more than a mockery of meandering, meaningless, masses of corrupt hearsay testimony and concocted allegations put before a body that regards itself as a Court manned by judges who are nothing more than judicial jesters.
In requesting a restoration of calm, Prosecutor Addoum indicated that the ruling of the Publication Court was a "preventative" ruling, and that it was an appropriate measure to be taken to ensure that there was no further impact on society, thus ensuring that the rules and regulations that were in place would be followed.
This was in contradistinction to the expression of very sincere sentiment by the Beirut Bar Association which had called on the judiciary to guarantee freedoms, that judges take decisions so as to protect public freedoms and not act to the contrary. The Association, in vain, called for judges to carry out their duty with true independence.
Justice Minister Samir Jisr responded to the criticism of the Beirut Bar Association by indicating that the decision of the Court was the only way to protect democracy and public freedom. He then called on those who did not like the law to limit their challenge to legal institutions and not the street, or elsewhere.
In the outcome of this calamity the newspaper An Nahar, through its editor, Gebran Tueni, lashed out at the ruling, indicating that it was "the murder by the murderers of democracy who slaughtered liberty with verbal hatchets and vocal terrorism" and he equally denounced, with similar savagery, the attempt to subvert the Press Association's National Conference, for the support of media freedom in Lebanon. In turn, he appealed for the judiciary to both lead and give the example that they were sworn to uphold in observing the law and to act as a branch of Government and not subordinate to a faceless security force.
The issue for consideration here tonight is not so much to denounce, but to decipher what this means for Lebanon and, more particularly, coming as it does soon after the anniversary of 7 August 2001, and following on the assassination of the late Ramzi Irani on 20 May 2002.
Freedom of Opinion and Expression
The events of 5 September 2002 were but an utter manifestation of the removal of civil and political rights of the Lebanese populace. Civil rights are those rights that are intended to protect physical integrity, procedural due process rights, and non-discrimination rights. Political rights enable one to participate meaningfully in the political life of one's society, they include rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association, and the right to vote. Civil and political rights are often called the first generation of human rights. Rousseau, writing just before the French Revolution, proclaimed that "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains". On the liberty of the Press, the great French patriot, Voltaire, said: "I know many books that fatigue, but none which have done real evil".
In what was regarded, by many in the legal fraternity, as a seminal statement by one of the first human rights lawyers ever recorded, Cesare Beccaria argued that there was a right not to be subjected to torture. He then went on to say that the liberty which men had been forced, by necessity, to yield to the State was the very minimum required for the State to defend what remained. He then said this: "Punishments that exceed what is necessary for the protection of the deposit of public security are by their very nature unjust".
Writing in his book Of Crimes and Punishments, published as long ago as 1764, Beccaria said this: "... if, by defending the rights of man and of unconquerable truth, I should hope to save from the spasm and agonies of death some wretched victim of tyranny or of no less fatal ignorance, the thanks and tears of one innocent mortal in his transports of joy would console me for the contempt of all mankind".
How proud we are of the Lebanese Bar Association and its valiant members and all lawyers throughout the world who stand up for human rights and more importantly for the human rights of the Lebanese. In his recent topical text: The Human Rights Story, the learned Queens Counsel, Geoffrey Robertson, said this: "The fundamental rights to life, equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not drawn from any empirical source or discovered through rational argument; they may be given by God but the proof of their existence is that we all feel and think them - they attach inalienably' to the human person, like a shadow. They are not the end product of philosophical enquiry but the starting point for it, imposing a duty on government to order itself in a way which will maximise opportunities for individual fulfilment" (p.7).
Lebanon has not been short of contributors to the body of law that constitutes human rights jurisprudence. The late Charles Malek, a cousin of Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, Governor of New South Wales, as she recently proudly proclaimed, was one of the framers of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
In 1948, the US Secretary of State, George Marshall, explained the link that the framers of the Declaration of Human Rights had in mind when he said: "Governments which systematically disregard the rights of their own people are not likely to respect the rights of other nations and other people, and are likely to seek their objectives by coercion and force".
It is imperative to bear in mind that the final draft of the Universal Declaration emerged from a geographically and culturally mixed committee on which major contributions were made by delegates from India, China and Lebanon, with further input from representatives of Chile, Iran and Egypt.
How, then, did Lebanon lose its way?
The Syrian presence, as a result of the non-implementation of the TAIF Accord in 1991, and its occupation of Lebanon prior to that, and its eventual subjugation of our beloved nation since that time, has rendered the Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as nothing more than a collection of "pious phrases", to quote the late Andrei Vyshinsky, who was often touted as the century's most polished legal liar. He, of course, was one of Stalin's more subtle and intelligent stooges in the aftermath of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, as it came to be known.
The closure of the twin media outlets represented a total censorship of news and opinion. It was much the same in terms of replicating the totalitarian regime that exists in Syria and which, in turn, will inevitably be foisted on Lebanon as the Syrian presence gradually erodes the last vestiges of fundamental freedoms as they exist in Lebanon. In all of this, Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which is in like terms to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, provides as follows:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
The recent judgment of the Lebanese Publications Court is against what is underpinned or underwritten by international law represented in Article 19. The international law effectively prescribes a presumption in favour of free speech, but this protection has been effectively negated by the Lebanese judiciary in an abject denial of their duty.
There is no doubt that the public are dependent upon the media and that there is much public interest in the dissemination of information which it is desired to communicate and to be afforded the right to communicate among themselves.
Judicial bodies, such as the European Court, have made it clear in such famous cases as the Spycatcher judgment, that suppression orders and injunctions which impose prior restraint are to be avoided, if possible. Equally, in Australia, in the Spycatcher judgment, in the High Court of Australia, in like terms it condemned any repression of the right to disseminate information.
Lebanon's judiciary have shown no respect for themselves, intellectually and ethically, in pronouncing the judgment that they have. The commonality of Article 19 in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, bestows a right to seek information, as well as to receive and impart it. This is precisely what Charles Malek had in mind as one of the framers of the Declaration. This must imply more than a right to ask questions, and it may be used to support implications of Article 19 which are:
(1) to impose duties on governments to divulge information;
(2) to protect people who wish to speak out in conscience from within a government agency; and
(3) to permit journalists to refuse to divulge their confidential source for stories, no matter how much their identity may be of interest to police or security sources.
When the unashamed reflex reaction of the Government in prosecuting MTV and its sister radio station for breaching an electoral law in such disingenuous circumstances is revealed for the farce that it is, then the true mockery of justice and the usurpation of fundamental rights and freedoms is seen for what it is.
The Lebanese Government, strapped as it is and regimented by the presence of Syria, has effectively seen power centralised. Once power is centralised, fundamental freedoms can be ignored at will, as it is in many of the one-man dictatorships around the world that hold meaningless elections and boast marvellous constitutional freedoms. Lebanon and Syria are equally manifestations of this phenomenon.
The condemnation of the media outlets in the verdict of guilty by the Publications Court constitutes what I term "judicial juggling" of legal norms and, more particularly, the refusal to apply the rule of law and to instil in the public a well-founded fear that the judiciary has itself no respect for the law.
Cedarwatch has long marvelled at the manner in which justice is administered in Lebanon. For a long time the judicial role of making statutes conform, where possible, to fundamental rights was premised on the legislature's presumed intention. Whether it be the inquisitorial or the adversarial system of law, this seemed a satisfactory explanation of cases where the reasoning was seemingly perplex and posed a problem to the observer as to how a result was arrived at. It was really a matter of deemed legislative intent, that the presumption might ascribe to legislatures a somewhat unrealistic concern for detail. What the example in Lebanon has revealed is a rejection of the recent judicial developments in legal methods, namely a quite separate rationale: direct allegiance by judges to the fundamental principles themselves. No such development can be discerned in Lebanese jurisprudence since Syria's occupation.
The principles - the fundamental freedoms - are now brought to bear on legislation because of their intrinsic moral suasion, and are not mediated through the device of presumptions about legislative intent. It is not so much that legislators must have intended to conform to fundamental principles; the new view is that, whether or not they so intended, those principles must be accommodated. Alas, the Lebanese judiciary has been seemingly indifferent, if not obtuse, to this phenomenon.
Indeed, the manner in which the recent judicial pronouncement of the Publications Court came about shows a disregard for the manner and form requirements in the area of fundamental rights. That manner and form requirement is that unless there are express words of abrogation used, or abrogation is necessarily implicit in the chosen words, fundamental rights will prevail. The search for legislative intent has been turned on its head; it is now a search to see if a legislature intended to oust fundamental rights. This development has been literally overlooked to the extent that the judiciary were rightly condemned by the President of the Bar Association of Beirut and others for failing to look for the fundamental rights and to uphold them.
The Lebanese judiciary have failed to adhere to and to uphold the fundamental principles of the legal order. By this, I mean those principles that express, in general terms, the rights of persons within that order, along with those that determine its basic structure. For present purposes, I am concerned with human rights principles. These map out a prima facie boundary of legitimate State power. It is prima facie, in the sense that the principles are generally understood, to exhaust themselves in the interpretation process.
The judgment of the Publications Court in determining Article 68 as breached for allegedly condemnatory remarks of the Lebanese Government and more particularly the Syrian "partner" show a failure to judicially uphold the principles of human rights that those laws are underscored by, when taken into account with the Constitution of the Lebanese Republic, and the fact that Lebanon is a signatory to the Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Lebanese jurisdiction theoretically requires a judicial allegiance to a set of rights against which the reasonableness of laws are to be judged. The potential end point is a declaration of unconstitutionality, which is in practice refusal, for constitutional reasons, to enforce an enactment or more particularly to uphold a charge of breach of a particular law, such as Article 68. In this regard, unless the Lebanese judges are literally bereft of their senses, the breach prosecuted against the twin media outlets was so farcical and so utterly unfounded that to find it as an offence proved is to be false to their judicial oath. It is they who should have been convicted and more importantly, it is the Government that should have been closed.
The Apparition of Arab Fundamental Freedom
Recently, and coincidentally, soon after the arrest and imprisonment of Dr Samir Geagea, prior to his conviction, on 15 September 1994 the Council of the League of Arab States, by Resolution 5437, signed into law, by adopting for the respective signatories, the Arab Charter On Human Rights 1994. Among the signatories of the 22 members of the Arab League were Lebanon and the Syrian Arab Republic. The Preamble to the Arab Charter purported to re-affirm the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the provisions of the United Nations International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.
Nowhere in the text or more particularly in the Articles, is there anything that equates to Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights or for that matter, Article 19 in the ICCPR. Is it any wonder, then, that the protestations by the Lebanese judiciary and the Lebanese Government that they are upholding the fundamental freedoms are nothing more than a convenient protest to upholding a set of rights that do not enshrine freedom of expression and/or opinion.
Equally, when one looks at this current Charter, is it any wonder that the trials of Dr Samir Geagea were fatally flawed with a failure to accord and achieve justice to himself and his co-defendants.
As Lebanon purports to accept and to accede to, by being a signatory to the United Nations and its instruments, such as the Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR, it is implicit in such acceptance that it would recognise that the fundamental principles of human rights form part of the customary or general international law. To purposely delete from the Arab Charter of Rights, or agree to being a signatory to that document where there is no protection of freedom of expression or opinion is, in reality, a reflex response, like one of Pavlov's dogs, to what Syria in turn has dictated will be Lebanon's credo.
Implicit in Lebanon's execution of the Arab Charter of Rights, and its failure to uphold and accede to the freedom of expression and opinion, is the denial of fundamental rights and freedoms to the many students who have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured and beaten and in this instance we rely upon the example of 7 August 2001 where many students were arrested from the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement. Equally, the arbitrary detention of many protesters and the trial of Dr Toufic Hindi, among others, are but a further example of the repressive influence that will not countenance any freedom of expression or opinion by any political party. The very fact that the Lebanese Forces are banned as a political party is but a further manifestation of this perverse political philosophy that on the one hand guarantees freedoms and on the other, denies them and in fact seeks to stamp them out.
Professor Lauterpacht has made much of the argument, and convincingly so, that the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations in the matter of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, are not an artificial innovation out of keeping with the essential purpose of international law. Equally, Professor Brownlie points out that the subject matter of human rights is such that, even for non-parties, the content of the International Covenants on Human Rights represents authoritative evidence of the concept of human rights as it appears in the Charter of the United Nations.
Further academic support is given by Professor Merton, writing in Human Rights Law Making in the United Nations (Oxford, 1986) at p.198 that even non-State parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights may not derogate from basic human rights, and that the obligation to respect and observe human rights in the Charter of the United Nations is a fundamental norm now accepted into the corpus of customary international law.
Accordingly, the Lebanese Government, and in turn the Syrian regime, acting in concert and in tandem, each with the other, have by their repressive and retaliatory measures manifested in the judgment of the Publications Court on Article 68, espoused a view that is out of keeping with the purpose of international law, the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations, and its effect on the development of international law to confine international human rights standards to the realm of treaty law and thus not part of the municipal code applicable in the subject State.
It is my respectful submission, and I make this concerted condemnation of the Lebanese judiciary, that unless and until they adopt a juridical approach to the essence of the protection of human rights, and to apply it domestically, as it is clearly warranted, then they have abrogated their judicial duty, thereby denying human rights, the observance and application thereof to continue, which in turn has demeaned that body of law as a credible doctrine. They are a disgrace and an abject embarrassment to the office of a judge and to the eternal disservice of the subjects of the Lebanese Republic, whom they are sworn to protect in upholding the rule of law.
Equally, the political and economic trends within Lebanon must inevitably have an impact on human rights. The concept of Tassnid, or the rough translation of "securitisation" has come about as a result of economic and political mismanagement, the plundering of the national finances and the ballooning of the national debt to a US$30 billion deficit.
Mr "Clean Air", also known as Rafiq Hariri, and his financial "Wunderkids" are the architects of this incredible financial fiasco. Apart from selling their economic souls to the Syrian, who literally rape and pillage the economy on a daily basis, coupled with the influx of illegal immigrants, who are naturalised to swell the Lebanese populace to ensure that the indigenous Lebanese are literally outnumbered, Hariri's legacy will be the economic damnation of Lebanon. Hand in hand with such an economic malaise must come an increasing sensitivity to emasculate human rights and freedom of expression where the normal response would be to criticise and to question such economic mismanagement in the media.
Lebanon's debt becomes realisable in April 2003. How she will be in any state to repay it is beyond belief. Recently, the US Treasury Secretary, Nicholas Brady, in association with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, has commenced work on restructuring the outstanding sovereign loans, together with interest arrears, to enable the debt to be repaid.
The instruments are affectionately known as "the Brady Bonds". The objects of Brady's concern have been labelled the "Brady Bunch". However, within the "Brady Bunch" are such erstwhile family members as Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay, together with Nigeria, Morocco, Philippines and Poland.
The reality is that in terms of economic mismanagement, it is no wonder that the human rights abuses are prolific and will continue to be prolific as the citizens suffer and sustain hardship, for which they are neither responsible nor is the pain warranted. This is solely in order to supplicate the Syrian presence and hunger and to appease the Syrian envy and its unquenchable thirst to sap the life blood out of Lebanon. The opportunity to feather their nests and fill their pockets are too much for Hariri and Lahoud to resist, together with their cronies, who resemble a dishevelled Ali Baba with his 40 thieves. In like terms, Syria is equated to the "Barbaians at the Gate" although they have long gone past it.
Much has been said of the closure of the media outlets in question, but what is also an equally paramount feature of Lebanese Society is the removal of political opinion, especially in the format of the Lebanese Forces, a prominent Christian opposition party which refused to become part of the puppet regime. Its leader, Dr Samir Geagea, languishes in prison and his tale is one of untold misery and incredible treatment at the hands of the Lebanese judiciary in a series of flawed trials, which are each, in themselves, a cause celebre, not for the crimes that were allegedly committed, but for the manner in which he and his co-defendants were tried and found guilty, both within Lebanon and in absentia.
The forced exile of General Michel Aoun and the suppression of the Free Patriotic Movement, together with the attempt to restrain the legitimate Kataeb, (unlike the counterfeit Kataeb, led by Mr Karim Pacradoni) and the Liberal Party of Mr Dori Chamoun, are all legacies of the oppression and the breach of the fundamental freedom of opinion and expression practised in Lebanon.
Syria is not content to practice the totalitarian tactics in Lebanon and is equally adept in its own homeland at instilling fear and repression on its subjects. The recent imprisonment of Mr Habib Eisa, who was accused of "spreading rumours that affect the social psychology and harmony image of the State" as well as "promoting civil and sectarian strife", is a perfect example. He was a founding member of the Committee of the Human Rights Association of Syria and the official speaker at the Gamal Al Atasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue.
He, as a human rights advocate in Syria, was imprisoned on 12 September 2001, after defending Mr Ma'moun Al Homsy and Mr Riad Seif, on a television show broadcast on the Al-Jazeera News Channel. He was imprisoned in solitary confinement and denied the right to visits, as well as a fair trial. His Court was, to say the least, an exceptional forum for a wider variety of accusation which had the hallmark of what Amnesty International has decried as "fundamentally in breach of the human rights provisions where the body has no right to appeal". Despite protests for his release, which inevitably would be in vain, of and concerning the Syrian regime, he still languishes in custody.
It is, accordingly, timely that we now consider just what it is that we must do to highlight the Lebanese regime and its mentor, Syria. It is not as if the world is insensitive to Syria, which has killed thousands of its own citizens in the massacre of Hama, or that it is equally strident in the fact that it allows no opposition parties, there are no elections, nor are there any opposition newspapers - it is purely a totalitarian government in its finest form.
In this regard, the Syrian regime is well versed in the terror tactics that it has now brought to bear upon the Lebanese populace and is, in fact and in turn, exploiting other dissident groups within the Lebanese capital, such as the Palestinian Refugees, by prohibiting them from voting, from owing property, from holding jobs, so that they will become politically paranoid, thus being suitable political pawns to ensure that they stay in a state of frenzy, able to be tapped at an appropriate time for the outpouring of their anger on the Lebanese populace.
Lebanon's Legacy of Freedom of the Press
Lebanon, in the 19th century, was a nation that had the first print media set in motion, soon after the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire. It had the dynamics of democratisation and, with the advent of the 20th century the audio-visual media soon stepped in. Lebanon was an advanced and tolerant society. The interaction of the press and politics in Lebanon was not the sad and sorry state of affairs that it is today. Commentators have remarked that Michel Chiha, the father of the Lebanese Constitution, founded the Lebanese newspaper, Le Jour, and that many of Lebanon's martyrs in the fight for independence from Ottoman colonialism were journalists.
The printed word, from within Beirut and Mt Lebanon, was often relied upon to assist and to give spirit and heart to the indigenous Lebanese, to overthrow the Ottoman oppressor. The Lebanese press, in the form of the Arabic language, has survived five centuries of Ottoman occupation and it will survive this fleeting and transitory occupation of this Syrian nuisance. Once again, the Lebanese will re-invigorate and inaugurate a further Arab Renaissance, or Al Nahda.
The Press Syndicate, formed in 1919 and still going today in Lebanon, has admirably led a struggle against domination by various governments and sectarian pressures. In 1974, it drew up a Charter of Professional Honour, which was signed by Lebanese journalists, and in which it enshrined the involvement of the journalists in the defence of liberties stipulating that: "The newspaper is an institution that renders a cultural, social, patriotic, national and humanitarian public service. However, it also has a commercial and industrial character. Although practising its own freedom it is also committed to defend [the Nation's] freedom and civil liberties".
The Lebanese Press has stood unique in the Arab world, deriving its character from the traits that typify Lebanese society - an image that is both singular and plural, profound and versatile, loyalist and rebellious, wise and boisterous. Despite a history of robust resistance to external censorship, it has often practised self-censorship.
Its vociferous, and at times obstinate defence as a voice of the various components of Lebanese society has made it a beacon on the headland of opinion and expression, and the right to voice it, regardless of one's creed or political belief. Even at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, people have always had the right and the availability to read an independent newspaper.
If it were not for the Lebanese media, and the vigorous manner in which they disseminate information, how would the diaspora of the Lebanese throughout the world keep in touch with the motherland?
And so, one wonders whether the silence of the air waves will continue and, if so, for how long. One wonders whether the pregnant pause, or the void into which Lebanon's media outlets have either been thrust, or are about to be thrust, will confirm the surrender of the Lebanese populace, to the Syrian tyranny.
In all of this, it must be said that but for the US Government and the vocal utterance of the French Embassy, through its official, it is regrettable that no other Embassy in Lebanon saw fit to rightly condemn the closure of the media outlets.
It is disheartening to me, as an Australian, that my own Embassy was silent and equally astonishing that the United Kingdom was also not heard on the issue. Perhaps the economic prospects that Mr Hariri offers to Mr Blair are just too tempting to allow him to be distracted from such petty concerns as freedom of opinion and expression.
Equally distracting and disconcerting was the failure of prominent Lebanese throughout the world to stand up and be counted. The likes of our business barons, such as Mr Jack Nassa and Mr Samir Ghosn, as well as many other prominent Lebanese, actors, such as Salma Hayek. Their continued silence and seeming insensitivity to the plight of the Lebanese, leaves one dumbfounded.
Perplexing though it may be, our own David Malouf, while he looks and appears to be of Lebanese descent physically, and writes with the heart of a true Lebanese poet, has effectively disavowed publicly any connection with his native Lebanon.
However, I choose to conclude by quoting inpart, from Mr David Malouf's poem Early Discoveries and at the end pose a question:
I find him in the garden. Staked tomato plants are what he walks among, the apples of paradise. He is eighty and stoops, white-haired in baggy serge and braces. His moustache, once warrior-fierce for quarrels in the small town of Zahle, where honour divides houses, empties squares, droops and is thin from stroking. He has come too far from his century to care for more than these, the simplest ones: Webb's Wonders, salad-harmless, stripped by the birds.... They dwell in another land. As I do, his eldest grandson, aged four, where I nose through dusty beanstalks searching for brothers under nine-week cabbages. He finds me there and I dig behind his shadow down the rows. This is his garden, a valley in Lebanon; you can smell the cedars on his breath and the blood of massacres, the crescent flashing from ravine to slice through half a family. He rolls furred sage between thumb and stained forefinger, sniffs the snowy hills: beesshifting gold as they forage sunlight among stones, churchbells wading in through pools of silence. He has never quite migrated," - David Malouf, Selected Poems (Angus & Robertson, 1991)
Now that the sounds of silence of the air waves have set in, I ask each of you to search in your hearts and ask the question - have any of you ever migrated? The poet's memory of his grandfather is one we all share and it is an ancestral bond that cannot be diminished, nor can it waiver with the passage of time. Let us not let the sounds of silence dim our hearts or our minds to the cause of freedom and a just liberation of our beloved Lebanon.
Sydney 25 September 02