Attacks on the Press in 1997 (excerpt on Lebanon)
The Committee to Protect Journalists
26 March 1998


The government continued to use its regulatory system to restrict Lebanon's broadcast media, a practice it relied on last year. In July, the cabinet handed out licenses to one television station and eight radio stations, including Hizballah's Al-Manar TV, Voice of Lebanon (formerly owned by the Phalange party), and Voice of the People (Communist Party). The sectarian and political groups that received approval had been excluded during the previous round of licensing in September 1996. Only four television stations and 11 radio stations were licensed at that time, drastically reducing the number of broadcast outlets that had proliferated during the 1975-1990 conflict. Of the newly licensed radio stations, only three were authorized to broadcast programs with political content. Stations that were denied licenses in July included the Independent Communications Network (ICN) and New Television (NTV), both widely recognized for their independent broadcasting.

In a more direct threat to free expression, the Ministry of Information in February implemented prior censorship of television news broadcasts and political programs that are beamed abroad via satellite. Government officials defended the move as necessary to preserve relations with friendly Arab regimes. "The Arab regimes are different from the regime in Lebanon," Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri said in a January interview with the daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat. "So, out of concern for our Arab relations, we will not allow any private station to transmit news or political programs detrimental to our ties with the Arab states." Critics assailed the move, maintaining that the real intent was to stifle unfavorable coverage of political allies Syria and Saudi Arabia. Broadcasters complained that the government continued to censor them throughout the year, despite a ruling in April by the country's highest court that the practice was illegal.

As the year came to an end, the government stepped up its interference with private news programming. On December 11, the station Murr TV (MTV) was forced under government pressure to cancel a live interview with exiled former army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, a leading opponent of the Lebanese government and of Syria's ongoing military presence in Lebanon. Information Minister Bassem Sabaa had warned MTV officials that if the Aoun interview went ahead it would harm "public order and national reconciliation." Sabaa later added that he would not tolerate programming that "aims to destroy relations with Syria." Weeks earlier in November, state prosecutors had initiated an investigation into the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) after the station had aired an interview with Roger Tamraz, an exiled Lebanese financier who was convicted in absentia for "collaborating" with Israel. LBCI's chairman and a journalist from the station were summoned for questioning in front of a judge. The case was eventually dismissed.

Government officials responded to the media's more daring approach to news coverage by issuing alarming public warnings. On December 10, following a meeting of the Central Security Council (CSC), Interior Minister Michel al-Murr stated that the government "will not allow unrestrained political views to be voiced during televised interviews which include attacks on officials and the public." Al-Murr added that the government would "no longer allow television to be a place for some people to voice whatever they feel like talking about, especially as it might influence public opinion."

Both the broadcast media and the press continued to face the threat of prosecution under a plethora of statutes that allow the state wide latitude to haul journalists to court for their reporting of news and opinion. Decree 7997 (enacted in 1996), for example, bans stations from broadcasting news that seeks to "inflame or incite sectarian or religious chauvanism," or which contains "slander, disparagement, disgrace, [or] defamation." The Audiovisual Law (1994) empowers the Ministry of Information to close stations that violate these and other equally ambiguous statutes. A favored tool of the state against outspoken journalists has been the infamous Decree 104 (1977), which criminalizes "fomenting sectarian strife and defaming officials or foreign heads of state." Walid Husseini, editor in chief of the now-daily Kifah al-Arabi, was convicted on December 26, 1996, for an editorial he wrote denouncing Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. He was sentenced to two months in prison and fined of LL50 million (US$32,726). In a separate suit, Husseini was also charged under the decree for allegedly defaming Prime Minister Hariri and the Saudi government in a second editorial.

Syria's ongoing military presence in Lebanon continued to compromise Lebanese media coverage of Syrian affairs. Ever since Syrian troops occupied and temporarily shut down the offices of several newspapers in late 1976, the press has refrained from any meaningful criticism of Assad's regime and its controversial presence in Lebanon. The fear of reprisal for critical reporting among journalists is well-founded. In the years following the Syrian intervention, a number of journalists were assassinated in Beirut‹presumably by Syrian agents for their critical coverage of Assad's military initiative in Lebanon. Syria's continued dominant political and military influence in Lebanon, along with the notorious activities of its intelligence services in certain parts of the country, further enforce self-censorship among the Lebanese press.