Lebanon sought in 2002 to improve its image by hosting several international summit meetings, but the authorities alarmingly reduced press freedom, especially for the opposition media.
During the Arab League summit in Beirut on 27 and 28 March, major Arab leaders approved Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah’s plan to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In October, the Summit of French-Speaking Countries was held in Beirut. And on 23 November, France hosted an international conference (Paris II), at which several countries agreed to give aid to Lebanon to ease its crippling $30 billion public debt.
In the country itself, political tension increased between the pro-Syrian government and the anti-Syrian opposition, especially Christian religious leaders. On 20 March, a few days before the Arab League summit, about 500 students demonstrated in Beirut against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Against a backcloth of economic problems and regional instability, tension between religious groups seemed to sharpen.
Attacks by state security police, followed by legal action against newspapers and journalists, increased during the year. The targets were mostly anti-Syrian opposition media that did not belong to government politicians. In September and October, many demonstrations in support of the Murr Television (MTV) station were banned by the government. With MTV’s closure, the number of TV stations fell to five. But despite this sharp reduction in press freedom, no law was passed restricting Internet freedom.
Radio France International (RFI) opened a regional bureau in Beirut in March. RFI managing director Jean-Paul Cluzel said the move to the city by RFI and its offshoot Radio Monte Carlo-Middle East, which broadcasts in Arabic, was "part of the group’s development in a region where it is already well-established."
Pressure and obstruction
State security police imposed prior censorship on 3 January 2002 on the Saudi-funded, London-based pan-Arab daily As-Sharq Al-Awsat, requiring it to get permission each day to distribute the paper in Lebanon. The measure, which delayed distribution by several hours, followed a report in the paper on 31 December 2001 that a attempt had been made to kill President Emile Lahud in Monte Carlo. The presidential press office denied the report as a "complete fabrication" and the paper apologised. On 4 January, information minister Ghazi Aridi criticised the restrictions on a paper holding a proper licence in Lebanon and called for an immediate lifting of the censorship, which was ended on 10 January.
A dozen journalists were beaten by police on 23 March at the site of an apartment building that just collapsed in the Mazraa district of Beirut, killing four people. The heads of the press and journalist unions, Mohammed Baalbacki and Melhem Karam, jointly denounced the physical and verbal violence against the journalists.
They included: Edmond Sabila, Richard Assaad and Gebran Maftum (MTV), Said Baytamuni (LBC TV), Amin Abi Saad (NTV), Wael Ladki (the daily As Safir), Mohamed Assi (the daily An Nahar), Khalil Hassan (The Daily Star), Fadi Abu Ghalium (Dar as-Sayad), Georges Hatem (l’Orbit), Mohammed Zaghlul (a Kuwaiti journalist) and Ali Lamaa (a photographer with As-Sharq). Baalbacki and Karam said the journalists had not broken any rules and called for "a speedy investigation to find out who was responsible."
Legal authorities dropped charges on 9 May against Jamil Mroue, owner of The Daily Star, in connection with the publication in the US daily International Herald Tribune (IHT) - which it prints and distributes in Lebanon - of an advertising supplement for Israel. The IHT has since 2001 been distributed simultaneously with The Daily Star in Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Information minister Ghazi Aridi had called on 9 April for "appropriate legal steps" to be taken against the paper for publishing on 5 April a supplement that was "against the law and offensive to national feelings."
The supplement contained a quarter-page ad in which the president of the New York-based Jewish Anti-Defamation League proclaimed firm support and solidarity with the state, government and people of Israel. The Lebanese criminal code provides prison sentences of between three and 15 years for publishing propaganda in favour of Israel. Twice after that, on 30 April and 13 June, and in agreement with the IHT, The Daily Star decided not to distribute the IHT to avoided further legal action in connection with the same supplement.
A journalist on the daily paper As Safir, Saada Allawo, was fined one million Lebanese pounds ($670) on 30 July for writing articles considered an "insult to the legal system." However, the court accepted there was no intentional insult and reduced the fine. Allawo had appeared before the media court on 8 April in connection with articles about the disappearance of a young girl in Beirut in the 1990s which allegedly showed "contempt for justice and insinuations about an ongoing case" and faced a maximum three years in prison. She decided to appeal against the sentence.
Prosecutor-general Adnan Addum began legal proceedings on 6 August against the country’s main TV station, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), and its news editor, Jean Feghali,after information minister Ghazi Aridi accused the station of suggesting the murder on 31 July of eight people, seven of them Christians, had a religious motive. The station had broadcast the remarks of a relative of the victims saying the killer "picked them out one by one." The report caused a big stir among politicians and the country at large. The penalties could include between one and three years in prison and a fine of up to 100 million Lebanese pounds ($68,000).
Gédéon Kouts, accredited as a reporter for the French Jewish monthly L’Arche, was banned on 18 October from the press centre at the 9th French-Speaking Countries’ Summit in Beirut (18-20 October). The journalist, who had dual French and Israeli citizenship, was also permanent correspondent in France for the Israeli TV station Israel Channel Two. Lebanese journalists accused him of lying about the media he worked for and security officials escorted him back to his hotel, where he was forced to stay until the summit ended.
Prosecutor-general Adnan Addum, acting on a report by state security police, began legal proceedings on 29 May against the privately-owned Murr Television (MTV) for illegal election propaganda. The station’s owner, Gabriel Murr, was a candidate at a parliamentary by-election, standing against his niece Myrna, who was also the sister of interior minister Elias Murr. Gabriel Murr denied the accusations and stopped running election ads on his station.
Beirut appeals court prosecutor Joseph Maamari began new legal action against MTV on 8 August for "undermining relations with Syria and the dignity of the head of state and making illegal election propaganda." He said the station’s political programme "Soundings" contained material that "disturbed relations" with "a brother country" (Syria). The court said the station had violated article 68 of the 1996 electoral law.
On 4 September, the media court ordered the closure of both MTV and the Arabic broadcasts of Radio Mont Liban, which also belongs to the Murr group. Police roughly expelled MTV staff and journalists from their offices. An Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer, Anouar Amro, had to be treated for a sprained wrist.
MTV appealed against the verdict, which was condemned in France, the European Union and the United States and by several press freedom organisations. In Lebanon itself, the anti-Syrian Christian opposition and many political figures, including the minister of information, criticised it. A first legal appeal was rejected on 21 October. Lawyers filed another on 28 October, which was rejected on 27 December, causing the indefinite closure of the station. Because of the legal action against the privately-owned LBC, which is also close to the anti-Syrian Christian opposition, some observers spoke of a campaign to crack down on the opposition media.