Lebanon: Special Tribunal ignores press freedoms

Lebanon: Special Tribunal ignores press freedoms - Civic Space

Reporters, soldiers and members of the public stand outside a car dealership that was hit by a rocket, in the Hezbollah neighbourhood of Dahieh in south Beirut. The day before, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had confirmed in a speech that the group was actively fighting in Syria. Two rockets hit the south Beirut Hezbollah stronghold of Dahieh. One rocket hit the car dealership while the other struck an apartment block. No one was killed in the attack and no group admitted responsibility.

In a judgment pronounced today, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has condemned Karma Khayat to a fine of ten thousand (10,000) Euros for contempt of court.

While declaring that there was no evidence that the documentary series broadcast by Khayat and Al-Jadeed TV had undermined the public’s confidence in the STL, the Tribunal nonetheless finds Khayat guilty for failing to remove the material from the website and YouTube channel of Al-Jadeed TV.

“The STL has failed to take into consideration the importance of the role of the press in democratic societies as defined by international law on freedom of expression. Today’s sentence may have a disastrous chilling effect on the capacity of the press to act as a public watchdog,” commented ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director, Thomas Hughes.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the UN Security Council in 2009 in order to prosecute those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, has been politically controversial in Lebanon and there have been multiple instances of information leaks from the court.

In August 2012, Al-Jadeed TV broadcast five episodes in which they interviewed alleged witnesses to the Special Tribunal of Lebanon. Al-Jadeed TV had received a leaked list of witnesses and broadcast a series aimed at revealing the vulnerability of the witnesses and the lack of protection provided to them by the court. While the station ensured that the names of the witnesses were not revealed and their faces were blurred, the TV station and its deputy head of news have been indicted for contempt of court and undermining public confidence in the Tribunal.

The judge found that the Al-Jadeed documentary could contribute to the identification of 3 alleged witnesses, but that the concerns reported by these persons could not “objectively be linked to the disclosure of their identities and their alleged status as witnesses of the Tribunal by Al Jadeed TV”. In consequence, the STL concluded that the broadcast of the episodes had not created the likelihood of undermining the public’s confidence in the Tribunal.

The judge proceeded to find Karma Khayat guilty of contempt of court, for failing to abide by a STL order to remove the episodes from the website and the YouTube channel of Al-Jadeed TV.

In essence, the STL has declared Khayat guilty for failing to remove from the website and the YouTube channel of Al-Jadeed TV a documentary series that by itself did not contribute – according to the findings of the tribunal – to undermining the public’s confidence in the STL.

The STL’s judgement is tantamount to penalizing the publication of legitimate information. The amount of the fine is of no relevance: it is admitted under international law that even lenient sanctions can have a chilling effect on freedom of the media.

In an Amicus brief sent to the STL in this case, ARTICLE 19 said:

“It is the role of the media to act as public watchdog in reporting on matters of public interest, including the operation of the judiciary, and the public has the right to receive such information […] Media reporting on the operation of the judiciary contributes to the publicity of the administration of justice and is important to inform the public and enable public scrutiny of the functioning of the criminal justice system.”

We insisted that “unnecessary or disproportionate restrictions on public scrutiny of criminal proceedings are likely to diminish public confidence in the outcome of those proceedings.”

ARTICLE 19 considers that the decision of the STL has not taken due account of international law on freedom of expression: instead, it sets a precedent that will undermine the capacity of the media to operate as a public watchdog and to report on issues of major interest, such as the functioning of the criminal justice system. In turn, the lack of information of tribunals will undermine public confidence in the institutions of justice.