After a grim year in 2002, press freedom shrank further in 2003. Unjustified prosecutions and a rocket attack on a TV and radio station lost Lebanon its name as an "oasis of freedom" in the Arab world.
Several terrorist attacks and armed clashes occurred in 2003 and opponents of the Iraq war staged large demonstrations. After the US invasion of Iraq in April, Syria gave the go-ahead for a cabinet reshuffle to ease continuing rivalry between President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This produced the most pro-Syrian government since Syria’s partial occupation of the country was legitimised some 15 years ago.
It was once again headed by the millionaire Hariri, who has heavily invested in the country’s media and has close ties with the Saudi regime. He owns the station Future TV, the daily paper Al-Mustaqbal and Radio Orient, and thus has great influence in the media. At the beginning of the year, several Western countries expressed concern at reduced broadcasting freedom after the definitive closure in December 2002 of MTV (Murr Television), which is close to the anti-Syrian opposition.
A radio and TV station targeted
The studios of Future TV and Radio Orient (Radio Al-Charq) were badly damaged in a rocket attack on the night of 14-15 June 2003. The Lebanese media had not been the target of any such attacks since the end of the civil war in 1990. An investigation was opened.
Harassment and obstruction
The privately-owned station New Television (NTV) was banned on 1 January 2003 from broadcasting a programme about Saudi Arabia in which Saudi opposition figures expressed their views. The ban came after NTV’s owner, Tahsin Khayat, refused information minister Ghazi Aridi’s request to drop the programme. Prosecutor-general Adnan Addoum said it was aimed at preserving good relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, where 150,000 Lebanese nationals work. Hariri, a friend of Saudi King Fahd, also ordered the telecommunications ministry to stop the programme being broadcast to the region by cutting off NTV’s satellite link north of Beirut.
A legal enquiry was started on 13 March into one of the country’s biggest newspapers, An-Nahar, which printed an article two days earlier headed "Letter to God" that caused a outcry, notably from Sheikh Taha Saboungi, mufti of the northern Sunni-majority city of Tripoli. Its devout Christian author Akl Awit, a journalist and poet, called on God not to stand by and to strike at the United States to prevent it attacking Iraq.
Saboungi denounced the article as blasphemous and "more evil than Satanism" and demanded that the public prosecutor and the information and interior ministries take action. Muslim dignitaries met at Sunni headquarters at Dar El-Fatwa on 11 March and appealed to the government to ban the paper in Tripoli. An-Nahar owner Gibran Tueni and media and journalists’ associations protested at once against these demands as attacks on press freedom and the paper sent a written protest to Addoum the next day about these "threats."
The publications appeal court confirmed on 21 May a one million Lebanese pounds (600 euros) fine imposed on As-Safir journalist Saada Allawo on 30 July 2002 for "insulting the judiciary" by suggesting that it was not honest in a series of articles about the disappearance of a young girl in Beirut in the 1990s.
The government started legal action on 22 July against journalist Amer Mashmoushi for allegedly insulting President Emile Lahoud in a 17 July article in the daily Al-Liwaa. He and Al-Liwaa publisher Nureddin al-Hosri face up to two years in prison. No trial date was set and a judge sent the case to the publications court. The article accused a minister close to the president of substantial profiteering from the import of gravel after the closure of the country’s stone and sand quarries.
The prosecutor-general ordered the arrest on 5 December of NTV owner Tahsin Khayat for "suspected links" with Israel and "undermining Lebanon’s relations with friendly countries." Khayat, a businessman rival of prime minister Hariri, was freed conditionally the next day. Some said he was picked up because of NTV’s full coverage of a scandal involving the Al-Medina bank and various politicians.
The information ministry accused NTV on 16 December of violating the broadcasting law by putting out a "biased" programme and banned it from broadcasting any news or political programmes for two days. On 12 December, the station had criticised the Syrian military intelligence chief in Lebanon, Gen. Rustom Ghazale, and Lebanon’s intelligence chief, Gen. Jamil Sayyed, for refusing to grant work and residence permits to a Sudanese presenter at the station, Dalia Ahmad. The move was seen as part of harassing the station.