Journalists covering an international investigation into the assassination of Lebanon’s ex-prime minister, Rafik Hariri, will find themselves testifying this week, prompting a debate over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s reach and the limits of free speech.
For the past six years, the court has sought to find and prosecute the culprits behind the Hariri assassination. Hariri was one of a number of high-profile critics of the Syrian regime to be assassinated at the time. He and 21 others were killed by a huge car bomb in 2005 on a Beirut street.
On Thursday, the tribunal begins a trial for journalists and news outlets it claims have undermined its investigation by revealing details about witnesses in the case.
Freedom of speech
Among the accused set to stand trial is well-known journalist Karma al-Khayat and her employer Al Jadeed TV. Al-Khayat is accused of contempt of court alongside Hezbollah-leaning newspaper Al-Akhbar and the paper’s co-founder, Ibrahim Al-Amin.
Al-Khayat, like Al-Amin, has pleaded not guilty and denies the broadcasts undermined the efforts of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
“We believe this is a trial about freedom of speech,” she told VOA. "By putting us on trial, they are trying to shut us up and teach a lesson to all other media in Lebanon.”
Based in The Hague and established by the United Nations Security Council at the request of the Lebanese government, the tribunal is trying in absentia five members of Hezbollah for complicity in the assassination. Hezbollah has refused to acknowledge the tribunal or hand over its members to the court, which it claims is politically driven.
The trial is expected to cost nearly $63 million this year, with just under half the money coming from the Lebanese government and the rest coming from the international community, including the United States.
While the length of time, and cost, of the process has drawn critics from some quarters of the press, its very existence has also been divisive, argued American University of Beirut professor of political studies Hilal Khashan.
“Lebanese society is divided, and so is the media,” said Khashan. "Part of the media is for bringing the culprits who assassinated Rafik Hariri to court and the STL, and on the other hand part of the media rejected the creation of the STL and accused it of being an agent of the U.S. and Israel.”
Since the start of the investigation in 2009, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been hit by a number of apparent leaks, including revelations in German weekly Der Spiegel and Canadian broadcaster CBC.
It was the actions of Al Jadeed TV and Al-Akhbar that prompted a response from the tribunal.
Revealing witness details
In August 2012 Al Jadeed TV broadcast a series of programs, named “The Witnesses of the International Tribunal,” with details of alleged witnesses.
But unlike Al-Akhbar, which in 2013 published photos, names and other details of supposed witnesses, al-Khayat told VOA that names were not included in the broadcast and faces were pixilated. Khayat said the point of the piece was not to expose the witnesses included in a list handed to Al Jadeed or to derail the tribunal.
“I assure you our report did not cause harm,” she said, adding there was a strong case for investigating the lists and their possible leak. “Any investigative story should be chosen based on its public interest value, and the STL is very important to the Lebanese people. There is a high public value in knowing what is going on.”
It is a point disputed by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which said the “entire tenor of the program was the exposure of alleged confidential witnesses.” In a statement to VOA, the tribunal said it “welcomes any criticism” that “doesn’t interfere” with its efforts to discover those behind the bomb that killed Hariri, but “freedom of expression is not absolute.”
It asserts “media organizations must comply with the law,” stating the case is about “the deliberate interference with the administration of justice.” Alongside the charge of undermining the investigation by revealing witness details, al-Khayat and Al Jadeed TV are also accused of not removing the reports when ordered to by the tribunal.
If convicted, the accused could be jailed for seven years and fined up to about $130,000.
Setting a precedent
With the trial already splitting public opinion in the country, the pursuit of those behind the reports has drawn condemnation from some.
The decision to prosecute saw protests in Beirut from journalists and colleagues of the accused, while the country’s National Audio-Visual Media Council was reported at the time as condemning what it dubbed a “blatant violation” of Lebanon’s sovereignty that “harms the freedom of the media.”
Meanwhile Karim Khan, who is defending al-Khayat and Al Jadeed TV, argues the court's decision to extend its remit beyond individuals was a first for such a tribunal and “marks a remarkable event in international criminal law.”
“Whether it is [International tribunals in] Nuremberg, Sierra Leone, or Cambodia, the jurisdiction has never extended beyond human beings,” he said.
Khan speculated it could have “profound implications to decision-makers advising governments on whether they should sign up to such [international] courts.”
Anne-Marie Verwiel, a lawyer specializing in international law who blogs about the STL, agrees the decision is unprecedented, but she is less sympathetic to fears about the precedent it could set or assertions the trial is an assault on free speech.
“If confidential information is revealed, it is quite logical they would start a contempt case,” she said. “The court has to ensure they have effective proceedings, otherwise they cannot do the core thing they are supposed to do.”
The threat of prison
Unlike the main case before the tribunal, the trial of the journalists and their employers is expected to be relatively quick.
In the meantime, and with the threat of prison hanging over her head, al-Khayat said she will continue to defend what she sees as a legitimate journalistic investigation.
“It’s not just about being found innocent,” she told VOA. “Everything we have done in the past has been done in a highly professional environment; we have won prizes for our investigative journalism. “I am confident of everything I have done. Even if they put me in prison for seven years, then I will be a prisoner of free speech.”