Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat-On the same day that Sameer Qaseer was murdered, Lebanese journalists took part in a sit-in protest in Al-Horriya Square in central Beirut. To express their anger of the crime that had taken place they sat silent with their pens raised in the air. Many expected that this to be Qaseer”s fate as he was the biggest opponent in modern history from within the Lebanese press. He directly and controversially criticized everything that he considered an attack of patriotism and freedom. In his articles, he defied security and censorship authorities. He was also known for his outspoken views in which he would excel many Arab intellectuals especially from the Syrian opposition for whom the newspaper ”Al-Nahar” provided extra pages to express their opinions. Qaseer was frequently followed and threatened and at one point, had his passport confiscated. His live program, which he presented called ”Without Reservations”, was pulled off air in 2000 after just three episodes. The reason for this, given by the head of the television council at that time, Jean Claude Polis, was that the authorities in power were becoming increasingly frustrated with what they perceived as Qaseer”s insolence. At that time, another program on the same channel by Zafeen Qiyumjihan was also banned because of addressing the poverty issue in Lebanon.
Polis and a number of members from the board of directors resigned because of the difficulties in working in such a restrictive and censored atmosphere. Consequently, the secretary at that time was also media counselor for the Lebanese president, Imad Emile Lahoud, who commented on the reasons behind banning the broadcasting of Qaseer”s program. After the shock of Qaseer”s murder, he said that the reason behind banning the program was due to an article he had written in the French newspaper, ”Liberation”. His article accused Syria of obstructing peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Sameer Qaseer is not the first martyr of journalism and definitely will not be the last as many can guess the names of new targets. The repression of journalism in Lebanon is not a new practice however; it has become more and more shameful over the past few years. Journalists have been suffering from horrific experiences of kidnapping, torture and murder. There is now even an official date set in Lebanon for the remembrance of these Journalists called ”Journalism Martyr”s Day” held annually on 6 May.
The first victims of this kind of aggression back in 1916 were Pedro Pauli and Sa”eed Al-Akil who along with many others, were hung by order of the Ottoman ruler Jamal Pasha for their incessant demand of Lebanese independence.
Towards the end of deceased president Camille Chamoun”s rule, another journalist Naseeb Al-Matni was assassinated on 27th May 1958 for his campaigns against the President”s attempts to renew his term in office. In his last sermon, the patriarch Almarooni Nasr Allah Safeer stated that this assassination was the gateway to more incidents of this sort. The opponents accused the military intelligence of the crime, in turn, causing direct American intervention in the Lebanese issue.
Journalist and owner of Al-Hayat newspaper, Kamil Marwa was shot to death in his office on 5th May 1966. The perpetrator used a silent pistol and held a Nasseri banner who later headed one of the Lebanese militia groups funded by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). These militia groups were subjected to bankruptcy during the Syrian era after the Israeli invasion of Lebanese territories in 1982. The perpetrator fled to France where he still lives now.
Another victim to his writing was Saleem Al-Lowzi who was kidnapped on 4th March 1980 on his way from Beirut airport. His body was found inside the trunk of his car parked in the area of Harj Armoun, overlooking the Khilda region in Southern Beirut. His fingers were burnt by acid.
The next victim was Riyadh Taha, the secretary of journalism, who was assassinated on 28th of July in 1980 by unknown gunmen in Al Rosha region. On 29th August of the same year Yahya Al Hazoori, the journalist of ”Al Liwa” newspaper, and a member of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, was killed in Al-Shiyah.
On 9 July, 1985 Sameer Asim Salaam, the editor-in-chief of ”Al Fihris” magazine was killed along with his wife and his two sons in his house in Ras Beirut.
Assassinations were even carried out on non-Lebanese journalists such as the Iraqi writer, Abd Almajeed Wasfi, who was associate editor-in-chief of ”Filisteen Al-Thawra” magazine. He was killed on 20 June 1979, the same year in which a correspondent called Karen Robier Leifer, of the German newspaper ”Ishtreen” was assassinated in Al-Manara west of Beirut.
As well as murder, many journalists were subjected to imprisonment as a result of their courage in criticizing powerful and influential figures. The most prominent of these examples are the current journalism secretary Mohamed Balabki and the head of ”Al-Nahar” newspaper, Ghassan Tweeni particularly during the presidency of the deceased ruler Fouad Chehab, in which the intelligence services were known as the second bureau office.
After a national settlement in the Republic of Lebanon, not only did the means of external repression continue but also the phenomena of self-oppression emerged out of it. What is meant by this is the journalistic practice of restraining and limiting oneself out of fear for their life, protection or in the interest of somebody else.
Most areas of Lebanese media, in either their visible, audible or written forms have been sued for broadcasting or publishing news that violates censorship laws.
One of the most famous examples of a court order is that of our colleague Yousaf Al-Huweek, in charge of the accused newspaper ”Al-Diyar” for insulting the President of the Lebanese Republic. A life-sentence could be issued on ”Al-Diyar”s” editor-in-chief, Charles Ayoub. Also, the Lebanese Broadcasting Channel has been summoned on several occasions and there have been disruptions to the news bulletin due to objection to what is being said.
The TV station, MTV, however, has received the ultimate penalty and was completely shut down due to its verdict. At the demonstrations of 7 August 2002 in Qasr Al-Adal in Beirut, where students were violently oppressed, journalist Habeeb Younis paid the price for his courage and commitment as he was arrested, accused of dealing with Israel and was later sentenced to jail.
Asharq Alawsat has also had its share of punishment for violation of censorship at the beginning of 2000 when it published an article about the attempted assassination of President Emile Lahoud. The issue was confiscated in Beirut and publication of the paper was prohibited for several days. The director responsible was sued until it was cordially solved and to this day, the reasons behind this episode remain a mystery.